C. S. Lewis on intelligence in Christianity

I’m re-reading C. S. Lewis’s little classic Mere Christianity [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk] for maybe the fifth or sixth time.  Aside from some badly dated implicit sexism, it’s aged very well since it was written in 1942: it’s a delightfully lucid book, full of illuminating similies and piercing insights, and I always seem to come away from it from with something new.

The first two parts of the book (Right and Wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe and What Christians believe) trace through how you can arrive at a religion much like Christianity by thinking from first principles, without reference to the Bible or to Christian tradition.  The other two parts (Christian behaviour and Beyond personality: or first steps in the doctrine of the Trinity) expound the core of what the Christian religion is, or has been understood to be for most of the last two thousand years (i.e. nothing that particularly resembles much of what goes on under a “Christian” banner in modern America).

I’m reading Chapter 2 (The ‘Cardinal Virtues’) of Part 3 (Christian behaviour), in which Lewis briefly explains what’s meant by the old terms prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude.  Specifically, I just read the section on prudence (“practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you’re doing and what is likely to come of it”).  I could happily quote great chunks of it, but I’ll limit myself to this:

… God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.  If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.  But, fortunately, it works the other way round.  Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself.  That is why an uneducated believer like Bunyan was able to write a book [The Pilgrim's Progress] that has astonished the whole world.

Does that sounds like the Christianity we see on the TV and read about in newspapers?

That was a rhetorical question: the answer is “no”.  I think most people, in the USA at least, when they hear the word “Christian” think of people like Joel Osteen, Sarah Palin or (Heaven help us, and I don’t say this metaphorically) George W. Bush.  How on earth did we fall so far in 68 years from the intellect-enhancing faith that Lewis implicitly assumed to the agent of dumbing-down that we see far too often now?

I am a Christian and I’m not ashamed of it; but I certainly am ashamed to be associated with some of the other people who claim that name.

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130 responses to “C. S. Lewis on intelligence in Christianity

  1. “Not ashamed of it”. Strange thing to say. Why on earth ought you be? Rather like saying “I have two eyes and I’m not ashamed of it”. Oh well. Just wondering.

  2. Why would I be? Well, I wouldn’t, of course. But if you just tell people “I’m a Christian”, without context or explanation, they tend to think, “Oh, you mean like Sarah Palin”, or assume that you’re a Young-Earth Creationist, or (for Heaven alone knows what bizarre reason) jump to the conclusion that you are opposed to universal health-care. Those are associations that I am ashamed of.

  3. One word: “fundamentalism”.

    More words to explain:

    It’s been largely forgotten nowadays, that fundamentalism is an American invention, particularly a Protestant Christian invention, which moved from “these are the basics of Protestant Christian belief” to “The Bible is the end all, be all of all things, and isn’t to be interpreted since it is infallible”.

    A literal, or as literal as absolutely possible (I think even the most extreme fundamentalist wears clothes made of two different cloths), interpretation of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, doesn’t encourage thinking about one’s own religion and what it all means.

    Thus, you end up with an unthinking, backwards theology where not the individual’s relationship with God is at the center, but faith becomes a jail, a list of things you must and must not do to be a Good Christian, and that cannot adapt to modern times and changing social mores.

    Compare: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology

  4. Well, ok. But I’d say the onus of interpretation lies on the reader, and if someone goes of half-cocked with infantile stereotypes, it’s their problem. You cannot be required to give an entire summary of your gestalt every time you mention something about yourself, for fear of idiots applying silly stereotypes, now can you? For example, If I were to say that I am of Caucasian extract and was born in Zimbabwe, were anyone to presume ipso facto that I am a racist, that would be there own problem. Or, to put it closer to home, your penchant for sushi does not mean you favor wiping out whales, does it?
    What I’m saying is that a knee-jerk defensiveness about anything, let alone your life philosophy or religion, is letting fools set the terms of the debate.

  5. I have to say that, from what I know of Lewis, I’m utterly underwhelmed; the trilemma, for example (that Jesus has to be Liar, Lord or Lunatic) seems to be based on some pretty shaky assumptions (e.g. no other options are possible, such as Misquoted, Never Claimed to be God at all but Altered Later in line with Current Theology or Completely Fictional).

    As for how you can “arrive at a religion much like Christianity by thinking from first principles, without reference to the Bible or to Christian tradition”, I’m sorry, but no. I’ve heard most forms of apologetics in my time and every single one that claims to be able to get to Christianity without using the Bible inevitably uses it at some point. Maybe, just maybe, this is the one exception and maybe this Nigerian really is the president of a bank and actually does have millions of dollars in my name.

    In the meantime I’ll remain cynical.

  6. Ian, I like your style here, but I don’t think it’s truly practical. We all know that the meanings of words follow the way people use those words; increasingly over the last decade or two (especially in the USA) the word “Christian” has increasingly come to mean “politically right-wing”, to the extent that several Christian groups have flirted pretty seriously with abandoning the word “Christian” completely and adopting something less loaded and more explicit like “Christ-follower”. I’m not going that far, but I do think it’s only fair to be clear about terms. Similarly, if someone assumes a priori that you are a racist, then while it is their problem on a moral level, it might still have ramifications for you that they make that (presumably false) assumption.

    To pick an example relevant to the nominal topic of this blog (and yes, I do plan to write about programming again at some point!), I used to refer to myself as a “hacker”, in the Stallman/Raymond sense of that word, a couple of decades ago. I knew what I meant by that term, and that that “cracker” was the proper term for what people often meant by “hacker”. But that word has simply become unsustainable since then, even more so since the so-called “phone-hacking” scandal broke. Now I have two choices: either drop the word “hacker” as a self-descriptor, or explain what I mean by the word when I call myself a hacker. The situation with being a Christian is actually a very strong parallel.

  7. So, uh, how often do you come to the US? Between this, and your posts tangentially related to US politics a few months ago, I’m not entirely sure you have a clear picture of what the US is actually like. What you read in British papers, or even in US papers, is going to give you an awfully biased view.

  8. Paul, I won’t blame you for being cynical; all I’d say is read Lewis for yourself and see whether what he actually says makes more sense to you than the sort of butchered misrepresentation of his writing that you’re alluding to here (the “trilemma”, which is really Josh McDowell’s work rather than Lewis’s). Andrew Rilstone rather brilliantly skewers the trilemma here and more briefly here, but finishes up by saying:

    I think, however, that the trilemma still does the job which Lewis intended it to do: it absolutely refutes the sort of minimal Christianity put forward by such luminaries as David Icke, John Lennon, the Vicar of Dibley, Woody Guthrie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen of England, The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and Miss Govey who taught me R.E at primary school. This is the view that what the gospels describe is a good man who came along and explained that we should all love everyone and try really hard to be good. The idea that you should be good we assume, had never occurred to the evil Jews before, and which horrified them so much that they had him crucified. The trilemma does absolutely refute this idea. The person described in the gospels – the only Jesus we know about – cannot, indeed, be regarded as “just a good man”. Even on the hypothesis that the gospel writers created a fictitious character, the fictitious character they created was quite consistent: he thought he was God, behaved as if he was God, and died as if was God.

    Of course, the fact that he claimed this does not constitute proof! Lewis’s writing did not intend that it should; only that it should dispose of “the really foolish thing that people often say about Him”, that he was a great moral teacher and nothing more. Because if he was no more than a great moral teacher, then much of what he taught about himself was nonsense or worse.

  9. Kevin R, quite reasonably, asks: “So, uh, how often do you come to the US? Between this, and your posts tangentially related to US politics a few months ago, I’m not entirely sure you have a clear picture of what the US is actually like. What you read in British papers, or even in US papers, is going to give you an awfully biased view.”

    On average, I guess I visit the US about once a year, usually for a week or so. Certainly not enough to have anything like the perspective a native has. And I will admit that I get most of my current affairs from various Internet sources, all of which are of course biased in one way or another. Still, whatever else may or may not be true, it’s apparent that in the US there is a strong correlation between people claiming to be Christian and supporting policies (such as revoking universal healthcare, driving the environment over the edge and discriminating against immigrant workers) that seem to me completely antithetical to any non-partisan reading of the New Testament. So those are the people I want to dissociate myself from.

  10. I haven’t read that particular book. But I have listened to John Cleese’s reading of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis several times, and the thing is totally awesome. (It purports to be a collection of letters from a demon name Screwtape to his younger cousin Wormwood, a “junior temptor”. The real point is for the reader to get a sense of how to be an actual Christian from reading about how the little demon on your shoulder would tempt you into not being a good Christian.)

    Yeah, so when it comes to most of the morality associated with C.S. Lewis’s conception of Christianity, I’ve got no problems.

    No the part where Christianity runs aground for me is twofold: 1st Christianity has been, as you pointed out, associated with an uncountable number of Bad Things. The other point though is that to truly be a Christian, as I understand the term here in U.S.-of-A., would require me to believe that one guy nailed to a cross approx. 2000 years ago was the one and only true Son of God, and that he was subsequently resurrected. I am to further believe that he was birthed by a virgin. I am to ignore the fact that, as far as deific story telling themes go, this gimmick is not unique to Christianity. IMHO, although I am perfectly aware that I might inadvertently be playing right into the Devil’s hands, I find those notions patently ridiculous.

    You can have every bit the same moral code that C.S. Lewis goes on philosophizing about without ever stepping close to even one irrational miracle. Christianity does not have a patent or proprietary right to the concept of a moral code or morality or how to live a moral life. Most if not all of the morality concepts Mr. Lewis talked about were already around well before Christianity.

    (And if you’re very lucky, you might even be able to find a Church: Unitarian Universalism. (And yes I am aware that this religion grew out of the merging of two denominations of Christianity. ;-) )

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  11. (This has turned into a debate about Christianity. Although I do enjoy a good theological debate, in my experience the medium isn’t conductive to any worthwhile conclusions, so I won’t join in.)
    I certainly see your point, Mike. Nevertheless I still think the ignorant application of two-dimensional stereotypes is something you cannot hope to effectively banish without sinking to an intellectual level equal to that of those who do so (ignorantly apply 2D stereotypes). (Pr. 26.4)
    At the very least, by letting dullards set the terms of the debate, you will find yourself wasting valuable time explaining (again and again) what you AREN’T and that the point against which they have taken such verbose umbrage is delusional, since you never said it in the first place!

  12. Your response to Paul Brown appears to strengthen his case, which is one that I share.

    Paul takes issue with a broad claim about what can be derived from first principles, but you have attempted to address only the specific example he gave, as if countering that one point would invalidate the broader issue.

    While claiming that the trilemma is not really Lewis’ work, you quote Andrew Rilstone, concluding with “[the possibly fictional Jesus] thought he was God, behaved as if he was God, and died as if [He] was God.” This is precisely the sort of thing that I think is absurd to claim can be derived from first principles. Ethics, arguably; theology, not likely.

    There is another problem with this quote. It suggests that if you take a view of Christianity that focuses on ethics and sidesteps Jesus’ alleged divinity (“a good man who came along and explained that we should all love everyone and try really hard to be good”) then you also believe, ipso facto, that “the idea that you should be good, we assume, had never occurred to the evil Jews before, and which horrified them so much that they had him crucified.” The dilemma here is nonsense (as nonsensical as the trilemma), and there is a hint of an accusation of antisemitism about it.

  13. Mike

    I do not believe, heck I know, that not all Christians in the US are fundamentalists or right-wingers, but I think that the fundamentalists are definitely the loudest.

    There are many, many of us here that are not that way.

    I admire the Christian blog post. I don’t think there are enough of those on “regular” blogs that aren’t totally religious in nature. Also thanks for bring up the C.S. Lewis book. I’ll have to check that out.

  14. @WyrdestGeek, as Mike said above, Christianity is not about morality. I recommend Philip Yancey’s “The Jesus I never knew”, which takes a good look at the evidence of Jesus’ life and death.

    (As may be clear from the above, I’m also a Christian. I’ve been rereading “The Four Loves” off and on lately …)

  15. I think you’re looking on the wrong side of the globe for examples Mike… if you’ve never heard of Fred Nile here in Australia, I suggest you keep it that way if at all possible.

    But for the sake of the morbidly curious, his latest venture into off-the-deep-end:

    http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/ethics-lesson-two-tell-the-truth-20110804-1iddo.html

    http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/godless-ethics-led-to-nazism–nile-20110805-1iepq.html

    He makes my brain hurt.

  16. Mike what exactly do you mean when you say that you are Christian? Do you like some of the Christian values, or do you like all of them? If you don’t believe Jesus Christ and God (in the sense that Christianity describes them) are real beings, then you are not really Christian. :)

    Also, since the bible is subject to very broad interpretation, there can be no Christianity, there are many different groups of people that believe relatively similar things but they are not the same. Which Christianity is the real Christianity?

    In a different trail of thought, if Christianity is the union of all the different Christian values (of all people who claim they are christian), then you are still not Christian because you don’t believe in all of them, only the subset that fits your understanding and sense.

    The only way you can be truly Christian is to believe and advocate the intersection of all the different Christian value sets.

  17. Do you know what the core reason for saying “I am a Christian and I’m not ashamed of it” is? It is not because it is other people’s fault. They have no control over what associations spring into their minds when they hear you say that you are christian. The real problem is our language, you can not succinctly say that you are christian and what christian actually means.

    Like I said in the previous post, when the core ideas (the Bible) is subject to interpretation, all people will read the same thing, but most will understand it differently, in their own way. This leads to fundamentalists, adventists, “normal christians” etc. When you say “I am christian.” I have no idea what you mean and I immediately label you under the first category that comes into my mind.

    This problem is prevalent in our world today. Whenever you hear people arguing about something and not actually working toward resolving their problem you are seeing our natural language failing.

  18. Various points from viktor:

    Mike what exactly do you mean when you say that you are Christian? Do you like some of the Christian values, or do you like all of them? If you don’t believe Jesus Christ and God (in the sense that Christianity describes them) are real beings, then you are not really Christian. :)

    The Nicene Creed is an excellent pithy summary of core Christian doctrine. I’d sign up to that. Do I like “all Christian values”? Certainly not all values that are described as “Christian” in contemporary society. I also don’t like values such as “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” but I try, in my very imperfect way, to live up to them.

    The only way you can be truly Christian is to believe and advocate the intersection of all the different Christian value sets.

    I certainly do not accept the idea that I have to advocate either the union or the intersection of all values that have been described as Christian. [Apart from anything else, the union would be impossible because it contains ideas that are diametrically opposed, such as "feed the poor" (Jesus) and "starve the poor" (many Republican politicians).]

    When you say “I am christian.” I have no idea what you mean and I immediately label you under the first category that comes into my mind.

    … which is of course exactly why I immediately distanced myself from Sarah Palin and her ilk. It’s a problem.

  19. Thanks to all for insightful and respectful comments — it really is a delight having y’all here, and the tone of discussion is encouragingly collegial.

    arabould, I see that my attempts to excerpt and summarise Lewis and Rilstone have done no favours to either author — maybe I shouldn’t have attempted it, at least not in a comment. Anyway, it’s evident that I didn’t put my point across clearly. I didn’t at all intend to use Lewis’s original, weak form of the so-called “trilemma” as an example of deducing “a religion much like Christianity” from first principles. All I was trying to do in that comment was defend Lewis from Paul Brown’s accusation of having authored Josh McDowell’s much stronger (and insupportable) form of the trilemma, by showing how different Lewis’s and McDowell’s statements are.

    Showing that Lewis was actually right is a much bigger task, and not one that I would attempt here. Really, to feel the texture and flow of his argument, there is no substitute for reading the actual book — which I do heartily recommend. You can pick it up very cheaply and at the very least it will give you a clearer understanding of what Christianity actually is; or has historically been understood to be before it was comandeered by extreme right-wing nutcases.

  20. Yes, it is a huge problem actually. Our language is at fault and it must be redesigned somehow, otherwise we will always have that problem. We are much like the Ents from Lord Of The Rings. It takes far too much talking and explanations just to clarify what we mean. People very often don’t wait for explanation and don’t even ask for one, they just proceed with what they think you mean, not what you actually mean because it is easier that way. Just like any tool, language must allow people to easily convey ideas. Natural language is not a good tool for this purpose. Many people don’t take this seriously or are not aware at all.

    Engineering and mathematics are mostly unambiguous but they are not spoken languages.

  21. viktor, I can’t imagine what your plan might be for redesigning natural language, but surely you see that even if it could be done, the new language would immediately start to decay in exactly the same way as the one we have now, with meanings drifting, multiple words meaning nearly-but-not-quite the same thing, and the same word meaning several different things (or even opposite things, as in the current vogue for using the adjective “sick” as a term of approval).

    That is the nature of language. We just have to cope with it as best we can. Often that will mean saying “I am a hacker, but not the kind of hacker you may be thinking of”, or “I am a Christian, but not the kind of Christian you may be thinking of”.

  22. So are you saying that people like Sarah Palin and George W. Bush are “lesser” Christians, then? How very un-Christian of you.

  23. Responding to Ian – most people carry some form of stereotype. No-one sees a guy in a business suit and a homeless guy in torn up cargo shorts in the same way at first glance – their perceptions may be different but people still take shortcuts to decisions based on previous interactions.

    Christianity in America has a huge branding/perception problem amongst people who are not involved with it’s politicized heart, largely because of the Republican party’s drive to politicize them (Phillip’s fine point about fundamentalism being a recent invention is also true of politicizing the evangelical movement, which was a campaign strategy of the first Bush president – or Nixon? Not sure.).

    The terrible thing about modern US fundamentalism is that they’ve taken the “it needs no special education to be a Christian” concept and warped it to “you need no other education than Christianity”, which leads to a narrow and prejudiced world view that turns off rather than attracts outsiders.

    Thank you for a fine article, the world needs more intelligent, moderate Christians who are able to present their faith in an empathetic manner.

  24. David asks:

    So are you saying that people like Sarah Palin and George W. Bush are “lesser” Christians, then? How very un-Christian of you.

    Ho ho. I see what you did there.

    Yes. Of course I think that my understanding of Christianity is better than theirs. If I thought theirs was better than mine, I would adopt it myself.

  25. GSP wrote:

    The terrible thing about modern US fundamentalism is that they’ve taken the “it needs no special education to be a Christian” concept and warped it to “you need no other education than Christianity”, which leads to a narrow and prejudiced world view that turns off rather than attracts outsiders.

    Yes! That is it exactly. Lewis says “you need no training in the sciences to understand Christianity”; but too much modern evangelicalim says “if you are a Christian, you need no training in the sciences to have a scientific opinion”. It’s the extreme version intellectual democratisation — “I have a right to my opinion” and everyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. But as Prof. Steven Dutch says, “You have no right to an uninformed opinion. If you are going to hold an opinion on an issue, you have a moral obligation to make it an informed opinion.”

    Thanks for your kind words, by the way.

  26. Mike, such a task seems grueling to me too :). I don’t know how to do this but I am not convinced that it is impossible. You are correct in that currently we have to cope with it as best as we can.

  27. Matthew Rees

    WyrdestGeek: Interesting choice of words. A person can behave irrationally. An opinion or argument can be irrational. I don’t see how a miracle, being an event, can be irrational. Perhaps you mean that you consider belief in miracles to be irrational. However, if you allow the possibility that there is a God, then you can’t discount the possibility that God could influence the material world. (A God that was incapable of influencing the material world would not be God in any meaningful sense.) In fact, Lewis addresses this in “God in the Dock”, quoted here: http://texasdualcitizen.blogspot.com/2010/09/religion-and-science.html. (For the record, I have not read the linked blog before; I only found it while searching for a site that quoted this particular essay.)

    As for your second point, the fact that similar motifs appear in other religions is neither here nor there. You might as well argue that JFK wasn’t really assassinated because the death of kings is a common mythical archetype as illustrated by Arthur, Agamemnon, etc.. (And if you tell me that Jesus wasn’t a real person, I’ll explain why that’s an irrational belief, but I don’t want want to add to an already lengthy post by rebutting an argument that hasn’t been made yet.)

    As to your final point, nobody said that Christians, or even Jews, invented the concept of a moral code. The fact that similar moral codes exist in all cultures worldwide is often used to support Christianity: “Look, we’re not just making these things up — everyone intuitively knows that certain things are right or wrong, because that’s the way God made us.” However, more importantly, nobody (at least nobody here) is claiming that it’s the moral code that makes Christianity more true than other religions. (In fact, what Lewis was trying to do with the so-called “trilemma” is to point out the absurdity of the view that Jesus’ moral teaching in and of itself was the most important thing about him.) Even the apostle Paul stated, repeatedly, that without the death and resurrection of Christ, all of our rules and good deeds don’t mean squat. What makes Christianity different from most other world religions is that it’s emphatically NOT about following a moral code, it’s about admitting that you’re incapable of doing so (and then allowing God to work on making you capable).

  28. Read this and then read ‘Till We Have Faces’. Then spend some time considering the works of the Inklings and each of their approaches to Christianity. The depth and variety may come as a shock—but regardless of which side we come down on, these are things that should be thought about and resolved on a personal basis. The works mentioned are just guides along the way.

  29. @Matthew Rees
    Hi. :-) I mentioned irrationality in connection with miracles. What I meant, I think, is that in the strictest sense a miracle is, by its very nature, supernatural–that is to say it is a one-time event that somehow occurs in abeyance or in opposition to what we think we know are the normal “laws” of the universe and physics.

    Because of that very definition, I can’t actually prove that miracles don’t happen. I tend to just lump miracles together in my mind with ghosts, egg balancing on the equinox, and the Loch Ness monster. Maybe it wasn’t fair of me to characterize miracles or belief in miracles as irrational. I guess what is rational and what is not is more a matter of opinion.

    IMHO, the fact that similar themes or motifs occur in other religions is important because I come at this from a point of view of asking myself:

    Christianity is often purported to be historically accurate i.e. that these events actually occurred. Is this implied assertion true? Why or why not?

    So if it is the case that other world religions have virgin births or babies found floating down a river then, to me, this is significant because it argues strongly in the direction that the gospels and the Old Testament are collections of stories that may not be any more historically accurate than, for example, the Iliad.

    As to moral codes: Why did I spend so much time going on about it? I guess because it seemed to me that a lot of C.S. Lewis’s pro-Christian arguments, much of Mike Taylor’s argument, and an argument I’ve heard from various Christian philosophers over the years has to do with the moral code. That is to say: they speak and write from a point of view of simply assuming a priori that morality implies Christianity and that Christianity implies morality. Seriously. Go check it out! Now try and imagine how pretentious those folks sound to all of us non-Christian people that don’t pour sugar in gas tanks or eat babies. It is as though, over and over again, many Christian writers are implying that only a Christian person can be moral. And in the worse cases, the holier than thou folks also imply that anyone that is Christian is automatically moral and can do no wrong. (I know, I know–that doesn’t represent you.)

    As to your last point–that what makes Christianity different is its acknowledgement that squishy humans are unable to follow the moral code and that they need God’s help to get them there–I think I will agree that the specific phrasing where we’re all considered “sinners” who must ask for forgiveness is a Christian one. But if we change the language then, once again, I am not sure if the underlying concept (i.e. that humans cannot always follow the moral code, and that they sometimes need outside help to keep following it) is originally a Christian one. It might be, I’m just not sure.

    The thing you have to understand about C.S. Lewis is this: He was a clever guy. He was a consummate philosopher. But being clever and good at philosophy doesn’t necessarily mean your point of view is correct. It’s like suppose you are physically strong so you are always winning physical competitions. We all know that, that has no bearing on whether your beliefs are accurate or true. I.e.: Might does not make right. But it turns out that being good at thinking, and therefore being good at presenting arguments to support your beliefs also has no bearing on whether those beliefs that you hold are true. Getting at “THE TRUTH” is much harder than that.

    It’s dangerous to believe that your path is the only path. It can even be dangerous to believe that your path is the best path for everyone, everywhere instead of just for you.

    Did Mr. Lewis ever talk about that? Also, I’m curious: would you or Mike Taylor consider Baruch Spinoza to have been a Christian?

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  30. [Brief P.S.] I’m sorry–I tried to name Baruch Spinoza as being speculatively a Christian, but the religion that he got excommunicated from was actually Judaism. Being able to edit comments would be cool.

  31. Matthew Rees

    “So if it is the case that other world religions have virgin births or babies found floating down a river then, to me, this is significant because it argues strongly in the direction that the gospels and the Old Testament are collections of stories that may not be any more historically accurate than, for example, the Iliad.”

    I understand what you’re saying, but my point is that there’s a vast difference between the Iliad and the Gospels in terms of historical credibility. The Iliad describes events taking place at a place which is now known to have existed, but there’s no specific date given for these events. Other mythical accounts are even more vague as to specifics. Where and when was Osiris killed, for example? Compare this to the Gospels, which are very specific as to the time and place of the events recorded, and which were written within a generation of the events. They would have been far easier for someone to fact-check.

    I can’t specifically refute the suggestion that the gospel writers added in the virgin birth in order to make Jesus fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah. However, that line of reasoning really breaks down when it comes to the resurrection. I’ve seen people talking about other accounts of gods that died and came back to life, but that doesn’t do anything to disprove the claim that a Jewish carpenter living at a specific historical time and place, came back to life after being crucified by the Romans. If Jesus hadn’t been raised, then the Jewish or Roman authorities could simply have pulled out the body and that would have been an end of it.

    (Ironically, IIRC Lewis said that these similarities were one of the things that led him to the conclusion that Christianity is true — he would have been more skeptical of it if it had had no connection to any previous human experience. He considered the myths to be foreshadowing of the real thing.)

    “That is to say: they speak and write from a point of view of simply assuming a priori that morality implies Christianity and that Christianity implies morality.”

    That’s not really the argument that Lewis makes. It’s been years since I read Mere Christianity, but from what I remember (and what’s summarized on Wikipedia), it boils down to something like this: “Since all humans have a basic sense of right and wrong, it’s logical to conclude that sense comes from somewhere. It further follows that where it comes from is most likely a God who created us and endowed us with that sense. If such a God exists, it’s logical to expect that he would attempt to communicate with us, and there are sound reasons to believe that the Bible is that communication.” I’m grossly oversimplifying his argument, but as you can see it’s more complicated and subtle than “morality = Christianity”.

    “It’s dangerous to believe that your path is the only path.”

    Again, I understand your point, and I agree with you in principle. However, I would counter that Christianity is not my path. Yes, it’s what I believe, but it’s not something I came up with myself. I’m not saying that I figured out the right way to live by my own cleverness, I’m saying that it was revealed to me (through others) by a God who loves me and wants me to have a relationship with him — and also wants me to share the information with others so that they can have a relationship with him too.

    I know nothing about Spinoza, and don’t have the energy right now to try to process what Wikipedia says about him to form an opinion.

  32. However, I would counter that Christianity is not my path.

    More fun with the imprecision of our language: “my” (and “your”) can be used as shorthand for “that which belongs to me” and “that which I made”, as in “my chair” and “my thesis”. Or they can be used for “that which I belong to” and “that which made me”, as in “my country” or “my God”. One of the problems Lewis warned about (in The Screwtape Letters) is the tendency of people to stop seeking for a God outside of themselves and to shift into worshiping whatever view of God they have become comfortable with–to subtly, but horribly shift from one sense of “my God” to the other. Screwtape memorably characterizes this as idolatry, and ever since I read that book, I have been seeing it all too often.

    Sometimes in other people, even.

  33. Matthew Rees, Matt Wedel, Mike Taylor (and everybody else who commented): You are all cool and smart people. (And so was C.S. Lewis.)

    Most of the commenters believe things that are different from what I believe. Reading Mr. Lewis makes it appear as though Christianity is just the natural, logical choice. But if I were to search around enough, I have no doubt I could find someone else who would be very convincing that Buddhism or Islam or Judaism was the way. But somehow, I have a feeling that even if all of us read very convincing arguments presenting really strong cases for each of the world’s major religions, and even some of its lesser ones, and even good old humanism, none of us would change our beliefs. And now an imaginary psychoanalytical Socrates asks us, “why is that do you suppose?”

    I could continue to argue my side vs. your side, but as is almost invariably the case, it doesn’t seem that progress is going to be made by you to convince me or by me to convince you.

    So let us agree to disagree on this point of cosmology, and I will go watch the Southpark episode where the boys all got scared of Hell by the priest and therefore tried to grok transubstantiation in their Sunday school class.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  34. Apologies in advance for this very long comment. I wondered whether to promote it to being its own post, but I think it only really makes sense in the context of this thread.

    First, many, many thanks to all who have commented. We now have a thread going about religion, which has reached 34 comments, and every one of them is polite, rational and constructive. I think this may be a first for the Internet! Seriously, I am delighted and impressed by the tone of this conversation — I think Lewis himself would have enjoyed it.

    WyrdestGeek has made a lot of interesting points. Some of them, Matthew Rees has already responded to, but I want to chip in briefly as well.

    What I meant, I think, is that in the strictest sense a miracle is, by its very nature, supernatural–that is to say it is a one-time event that somehow occurs in abeyance or in opposition to what we think we know are the normal “laws” of the universe and physics. [...] Maybe it wasn’t fair of me to characterize miracles or belief in miracles as irrational. I guess what is rational and what is not is more a matter of opinion.

    You are quite right that a miracle is, by definition, something outside of natural law, and therefore not amenable to much of the scientific reasoning we would normally use in assessing probabilities and suchlike. (Of course, any specific claim of a miracle is subject to scrutiny by objective standards. The one thing you can’t do is say “but science says that can’t happen” as though it settles the matter — that is begging the question.)

    I don’t agree that what is or isn’t rational is a matter of opinion — I think that has to be objective. I’d draw two distinctions with regard to belief in miracles. First, while a belief that miracles (i.e. events that do not conform to nature) occur is rational, a belief in a specific miracle may not be — because the former is a metaphysical proposition but the latter is a physical claim. And second, we need to make a distinction between rationality and rationalism. The latter is a metaphysical position that posits axiomatically that nature is all there is, so it excludes the possibility of miracles before we start. That is a reasonable (though I believe mistaken) position to adopt. But we need to be careful not to be fooled by a mere pun into thinking that only what is rationalistic can be rational.

    Hope that makes sense.

    So if it is the case that other world religions have virgin births or babies found floating down a river then, to me, this is significant because it argues strongly in the direction that the gospels and the Old Testament are collections of stories that may not be any more historically accurate than, for example, the Iliad.

    I understand this, and I have a lot of sympathy with it so far as it pertains to the more mythical Old Testament stories. Where it falls down is with the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament, which are in a completely different style. Once again, Lewis (who remember was a professor of ancient literature) explains the matter very clearly in his essay Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism — excuse the long quote but I think you need it all to get the full flavour of his position:

    In what is already a very old commentary I read that the Fourth Gospel is regarded by one school as a ‘spiritual romance’, ‘a poem not a history’, to be judged by the same canons as Nathan’s parable, the Book of Jonah, Paradise Lost ‘or, more exactly, Pilgrim’s Progress’. After a man has said that, why need one attend to anything else he says about any book in the world? Note that he regards Pilgrim’s Progress, a story which professes to be a dream and flaunts its allegorical nature by every single proper name it uses, as the closest parallel. Note that the whole epic panoply of Milton goes for nothing. But even if we leave out the grosser absurdities and keep to Jonah, the insensitiveness is crass — Jonah, a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident and surely not without a distinct, though of course edifying, vein of typically Jewish humour. Then turn to John. Read the dialogues: that with the Samaritan woman at the well, or that which follows the healing of the man born blind. Look at its pictures: Jesus (if I may use the word) doodling with his finger in the dust; the unforgettable en de nux (xiii, 30). I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage — though it may no doubt contain errors — pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.

    In a way, this is not unlike (the original intention of) the trilemma. Lewis is not here trying to persuade us that the Gospel accounts are true, but lay out out what the options are. Either the Gospels are essentially journalistic accounts of events that the writers believed to be true, or they are absurdly improbably literary feats. What they can’t be — the very shape of their prose tells us this — is myths retold.

    (Note once more: we all understand this doesn’t in itself show the Gospels to be true; only that their authors believed that they were and intended that we should, too.)

    As to moral codes: Why did I spend so much time going on about it? I guess because it seemed to me that a lot of C.S. Lewis’s pro-Christian arguments, much of Mike Taylor’s argument, and an argument I’ve heard from various Christian philosophers over the years has to do with the moral code. That is to say: they speak and write from a point of view of simply assuming a priori that morality implies Christianity and that Christianity implies morality.

    I certinly hope I didn’t assume any such thing; I can assure you that Lewis doesn’t. Such a statement would miss out about a dozen steps of the process that Lewis went through. Mere Christianity starts out by arguing, I think persuasively, that the ubiquity of moral law, and its similarity in so many points across time and space, implies the existence of a god. That’s all (at that point) — it implies only theism of some kind. It is a huge leap to get from there to Christianity, or rather a series of many small steps … And those steps, really, are what the rest of the book is about.

    Oh, and the idea that Christianity implies morality can be easily refuted by half an hour spent with Christians or five minutes browsing the news headlines. Science-fiction author John Scalzi memorably wrote “I think Christianity is a fine religion and I wish more Christians practiced it”. We would certainly hope that Christians are more moral than the same people would be if they were not Christians, but that hypothesis is hard to test.

    And a quote that I long ago saw attributed to Annie Lennox, of all people: “Christianity has survived two thousand years of Christians, so there must be something in it.”

    It is as though, over and over again, many Christian writers are implying that only a Christian person can be moral. And in the worse cases, the holier than thou folks also imply that anyone that is Christian is automatically moral and can do no wrong. (I know, I know–that doesn’t represent you.)

    Nor Lewis — not at all. Lewis would argue that the morality of even an atheist is evidence for a god — a notion that atheists would not be too charmed by, I am sure, but I do see his point.

    As to your last point–that what makes Christianity different is its acknowledgement that squishy humans are unable to follow the moral code and that they need God’s help to get them there–I think I will agree that the specific phrasing where we’re all considered “sinners” who must ask for forgiveness is a Christian one. But if we change the language then, once again, I am not sure if the underlying concept (i.e. that humans cannot always follow the moral code, and that they sometimes need outside help to keep following it) is originally a Christian one. It might be, I’m just not sure.

    Well, Christianity is a lot more specific than that! The doctrine of the incarnation is specifically that the only kind of help that could actually help was for God to be made Man, and that that is therefore what happened.

    The thing you have to understand about C.S. Lewis is this: He was a clever guy. He was a consummate philosopher. But being clever and good at philosophy doesn’t necessarily mean your point of view is correct. It’s like suppose you are physically strong so you are always winning physical competitions. We all know that, that has no bearing on whether your beliefs are accurate or true. I.e.: Might does not make right. But it turns out that being good at thinking, and therefore being good at presenting arguments to support your beliefs also has no bearing on whether those beliefs that you hold are true. Getting at “THE TRUTH” is much harder than that.

    You make an excellent point and it is well taken.

    Do bear in mind as well, though, that the same mental clarity and broad knowledge that enable someone to persuasively argue a position are also the very things that they need to best establish that position in the first place. Now “Lewis was clever and believed Christianity” would be an appallingly weak argument because you could just as well say “Noam Chomsky is very clever and rejects Christianity”. But I do think it’s legitimate to say that Lewis’s actual sequence of ideas is worth assessing on its own merit, and not being discarded just because he was clever!

    It’s dangerous to believe that your path is the only path. It can even be dangerous to believe that your path is the best path for everyone, everywhere instead of just for you.

    And yet, everyone does believe that. What is truly dangerous, of course, is trying to compel people to adopt your own path — something that we see repeatedly through history from the Inquisition to Stalin’s purges. Still — if we didn’t think we were right, we’d change our opinion to the one we thought was right, wouldn’t we?

    Did Mr. Lewis ever talk about that?

    I don’t recall his ever addressing this specific idea. I do know that he actively sought the company of clever atheists, in the hope not only of persuading them but also of sharpening his own thinking against theirs. (The Socratic Club in Oxford was founded specifically as a venue for Christian-atheist debates. I don’t know whether or how often they invited adherents of other religions, but my guess is that they would have been in short supply in pre-War Oxford.)

    What comes through again and again in Lewis is his conviction that the only legitimate reason to be a Christian is if you believe Christianity to be true (and by corollary, the only legitimate reason not to be a Christian is if you believe it to be false). He had no truck with ideas like “it’s good for the country” or “it brings comfort”. Having reached a position that he judged to be correct, he would not have misrepresented it as “something that works for me”. This perspective is rather brilliantly outlined in a short essay of his called Man or Rabbit?. I highly recommend it.

    Also, I’m curious: would you or Mike Taylor consider Baruch Spinoza to have been a Christian?

    Sorry, I have no idea at all.

    Most of the commenters believe things that are different from what I believe. Reading Mr. Lewis makes it appear as though Christianity is just the natural, logical choice. But if I were to search around enough, I have no doubt I could find someone else who would be very convincing that Buddhism or Islam or Judaism was the way. But somehow, I have a feeling that even if all of us read very convincing arguments presenting really strong cases for each of the world’s major religions, and even some of its lesser ones, and even good old humanism, none of us would change our beliefs.

    You might think so, and I am sure you’re right that every position, once adopted, tends to become entrenched. Still, it’s certainly not universal. As counter-examples, I offer both myself and Lewis. I was raised agnostic-shading-atheist and became a Christian when I was sixteen; Lewis having been raised in a nominally religious home became aggressively atheistic in his teens and was persuaded, slowly and incrementally, of the truth of Christianity only in his early thirties.

    So let us agree to disagree on this point of cosmology.

    Well, I can’t quite do that; but I can certainly welcome your opposing point of view, even if I think it mistaken, and trust that you’ll do the same.

  35. Kevin: I don’t think his lack of proximity has hurt his understanding of the situation here irreparably. Yes, there are a lot of non-Fundamentalist Christians about in the U.S., but the Fundamentalists are both rather uniquely ours and sufficiently loud and irrational to warp both the local debate and our global image.

    I’m happy to follow a church that (in it’s current state, there have admittedly been issues in the past) encourages us to be good charitable people and to study the Bible as non-literal with different books being a product of their context and intended audience.

    Of course there are also seem to be many Christians about our fair country who believe Roman Catholics somehow don’t count as Christian… buh?

  36. Tagore Smith

    Hmm- I hope I don’t break your run of polite and respectful comments here. It’s not my intention to do so, but I guess I’m a thoroughgoing atheist, and I find Christian apologetics unconvincing. Lewis was certainly very _clever_, but in order to make the arguments he made he had to ignore some pretty big elephants.

    And that’s the thing about modern apologetics. There is duplicity at their heart. The modern apologist is ostensibly arguing with the unbeliever. But his arguments are too weak to convince a real skeptic. His writing is aimed, indirectly, at the fold. A believer can look at the apologist and say “See- here is a man who has made arguments for Christianity so strong that even the heathen are convinced,” whether or not his arguments have convinced actual heathens. I think it’s worth reading Lewis with this in mind (and I think it is more flattering to Lewis to read him that way.)

    I’m a big Dante fan. I don’t really read or speak Italian, but I learned _Dante’s_ Italian just so I could read the Commedia. If you speak to me using only his vocabulary I will likely understand your Italian, and you will likely sound pretty odd. I’ve read the Commedia several times in Italian, and I’ve read most of the modern translations (Mandelbaum’s is best, Sayers’s rhymes, and I am fond of Ciardi’s, though it is not, objectively, a very good translation.)

    Dante was (among other things) an adherent of Aquinas. He believed that reason could convince you of the existence of God, but that there was something that could not be effed (it was ineffable) about God himself. In the Commedia Virgil represents reason, and is able to guide Dante for a long time- almost into the Presence, but not quite. At a certain point Dante must give up “lo mio duco” and put himself entirely into the hands of Beatrice.

    Dante knew a lot about the world- a surprising amount actually, if you were raised on the standard teaching that people thought the earth flat until Columbus came along and….failed to circumnavigate the globe. Dante knew that the Earth was round, and understood that you would see different constellations in the Southern Hemisphere. He understood that when it was morning in the Southern hemisphere it would be night in Jerusalem. He understood the angle of incidence, and wrote a beautiful bit about it involving candles and mirrors.

    It seems to me that you would like to go back to a time when the existence of God could be justified, intellectually. You want Christians to be out of the Aqunian tradition. But there’s a problem with that. What Virgil told Dante, in the year 1300, was that there must be a Shaper. What he tells us now is that there isn’t room for one, unless he shaped things at the beginning, and left them alone after that.

    People like to say that science and Christianity are not at odds, but that’s nonsense. You can have Dirac’s equation, or you can have Christianity, but you can’t have both, without going through some pretty amazing contortions.

    I think tht you might be bothered by the fact that modern Christians are all Beatrice, and no Virgil. But that shouldn’t be surprising, as the present Virgil must argue against the very notion of Christianity.

    I don’t mean to be uncivil here- I am an atheist, but I am not a particularly evangelical atheist. I recognize that religion is important to a lot of people, and I don’t really want to convince them of something that would make them less happy. But I have to admit that I can’t see much difference between believing in young earth creationism and believing in some other form of Christianity.

  37. Perception is the answer. The people you spoke of are actually of average to above average intelligence. However, it is your perception that says that they are stupid or of bellow average intelligence. So, Christians and Christianity has not changed in intelligence level, only how they are represented.

  38. Interesting stuff, Scott. Of course I don’t know Bush or Palin, or indeed Dan Quayle personally, and you would certainly imagine that it’s impossible for someone truly dumb to become President of the USA, Governor of Alaska or Vice-President. You would think that only outstandingly intelligent people would be in with even a chance at these high offices. And yet, and yet … from Ford onwards, the American presidency does seem to have offered the world a sequence of people of whom at least half have come across as stupid. How is that possible? Either dumb people really can become president, or very bright people can appear very stupid. Both alternatives are hard to believe, but at least one of them has to be true — doesn’t it? Am I missing a third alternative?

  39. Ok… I’m a liberal so it’s hard for me to believe I’m even going to go here (inadvertently defending the Bushes and their ilk) but one of the main points that I was trying to make earlier is that intelligence isn’t as important in decision making as you might think it is.

    Or rather–intelligence is very important in making good decisions, but only up to a certain point. You’ve gotta be smarter than Bart Simpson (there’s an episode where Lisa had set up a cupcake so that it would shock him every time he grabbed for it. He kept getting shocked and after maybe 10-20 zaps he still hadn’t learned the lesson), but you don’t have to be an intellectual like Lisa Simpson.

    Being an intellectual does not really make you any less likely to fall into the logical fallacies of lesser mortals, but the danger of your big, smartness is that because you are smart, you will be able to string together long chains of logic to support whatever you already believe. And after having done so you will tend to proudly feel that your beliefs are somehow better or more real or more true or worth more than the beliefs of those that have not gone through this long process. Heck, maybe it’s true. But you can’t ever actually know or prove that it’s true because there’s no way to really move outside your own biases and see your own thoughts from a truly neutral position.

    The way it works instead is that any truly wise person will have the humility (an important Christian virtue! ;-) ) to know that they do not know everything. And to admit that they could be wrong. For example: I believe that there is no God (or at least no reasoning-thinking-intelligence God as talked about in the Bible). I’m sure about this. I’m totally, completely, and utterly certain that I am correct.

    And yet even so, even though I am ab-so-lute-ly certain… I also know that I could be wrong.

    Given the choice between an intellectual President and a non-intellectual President, all other things being equal, I will always choose the intellectual President. But not because I believe the intellectual President is guaranteed to be better at it than the other person. i would choose the intellectual simply because I’d like a President who’s more like me.

    And that is why we have had so many Presidents that seemed stupid to you. Because, you see, you and I (we’re intellectuals) are more alike all the non-intellectual people on the Earth than we are different. We each of us would rather have a leader who is “just like us”. The only difference is that there’s a lot more non-intellectuals than intellectuals here in the U.S. of A.

    I tried to plow through a lot of concepts there, and I don’t know if I was entirely clear. Please feel free to ask for clarification. :-)

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  40. Tagore Smith

    My last comment got lost, but to recap…Paul Wolfowitz architected the war in Iraq and I bet he would score 150+ on an IQ test. Bush was about average when it comes to presidential intelligence (and if you thought him dumb I would consider that a consequence of bias on your part- he was pretty cagey. Lots of people misunderestimated him, though.)

    The thing you are missing is that intelligence is only useful for some things. All the policies you hate were decided on by people with very high IQs. Doesn’t mean they have good judgment, and doesn’l mean they agree with you.

  41. If GWB and various other notable US politicians have appeared to be stupid despite actually being quite bright (which I agree many of them are), I think it’s because they have gone out of their way to appear stupid — because a lot of voters prefer them that way. And *that* is scary regardless of how clever or stupid the politicians actually are.

    A few other notes: C S Lewis wasn’t a professor of ancient literature (his focus was later than that — mediaeval and Renaissance). He wasn’t exactly a “consummate philosopher”, as I think he would be the first to agree. Mike’s description of the state of Christianity in the US is (perhaps a bit broad-brush but basically) quite correct, at least according to some UK-raised Christians now living in the US to whom I’ve talked about the matter. Of course neither he nor anyone else is claiming that the US doesn’t have *any* Christians who are sensible, not-right-wing, or otherwise divergent from the stereotype. Only that the stereotype is there for a reason, and that the reason is that Christianity in the US has to an alarming degree been co-opted by the political right.

    I’d rather stay out of the (ir)religious arguments because they do have a tendency to get overheated. In case anyone’s keeping count (though they’d have to be pretty silly to think the count means anything much), I’m in the atheist camp. And yes, I have read (I think) just about everything CSL wrote. I largely agree with Tagore Smith’s assessment of the strength of his (and other apologists’) arguments, but disagree with his conclusion that they’re really just playing to the gallery.

  42. Tagore Smith

    I tend to think that voters like presidential candidates who are about as bright as Bush. I haven’t actually made him take a proctored test, but my guess is that he would score between 115 and 125 on the Stanford-Binet scale. I think that’s about normal for Presidents, but there are exceptions. Carter was dull, but conscientious- he was probably the dumbest President in my lifetime, but he was academically successful because he worked hard.

    There have been some really smart Presidents recently, and each of them had his own way of handling it. If I had to rank the smart Presidents, in order of intelligence I would say “Clinton, Nixon, Reagan.”

    Clinton was clearly a really bright guy. He was a master of bringing his intelligence to the front when necessary, but not too much. He could leave you with the impression that he was both very bright, and a good old boy. He was a genius in that respect, and that’s why a trailer-park kid like him became President.

    Nixon was also very smart (maybe smarter than Clinton,) but he was a paranoiac, and that eventually did him in. I was pretty young when he was President, so I will leave it at that.

    Reagan wasn’t as smart as Clinton and Nixon, but he was pretty bright- maybe 130-140 on the Stanford-Binet scale. He was better than Clinton at hiding his intelligence. They didn’t call him the “great communicator” for nothing. Too bad he was entirely senile for much of his presidency.

    Obama is a bit of a cipher, but I think it’s safe to say that he is the first American President who has pretended to be smarter than he is. It will be interesting to see how that plays at the polls next year..

  43. Tagore Smith

    Also, g, what makes you think Lewis _wasn’t_ playing to the gallery?

    Let’s assume that Lewis was a bright guy. Let’s also note that the arguments he makes for Christianity are weak- I think we agree that they are. If we agree on these two points we should ask “Why did Lewis publish his apologetics?” He must have had some aim in mind.

    I think Lewis _was_ playing to the gallery. The alternative is that he was a bit dim. You have to be a Christian to take his arguments seriously. This leads me to believe that he aimed them at Christians.

  44. Matthew Rees

    “Both alternatives are hard to believe, but at least one of them has to be true — doesn’t it? Am I missing a third alternative?”

    Yes — selective reporting. I can’t speak for the U.K., but I think the U.S. media in general has deliberately tried to make Bush look stupid by casting the spotlight on his foibles. Bush is not a very polished public speaker, which makes him easy prey. When he was president, David Letterman had a regular feature on his show called “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches” which poked fun at Bush’s verbal stumbles, but I don’t believe he’s done the same thing to Obama. (Side note: When Sarah Palin was announced as McCain’s running mate, Letterman did a monologue mocking her for, in essence, being common. That left a very bad taste in my mouth. I thought the Democrats were supposed to be the ones that were *for* the common people?)

    I’m not saying this as a Bush fanboy. I think he’s made some wrongheaded decisions, such as invading Iraq. But I think his worst decisions have resulted from a refusal to listen to dissenting opinions. I think the same is true of Obama. But that’s a case of arrogance, not stupidity.

  45. Interesting thoughts here (and some quite disheartening ones, particularly from WyrdestGeek). Now that this discussion has veered off religion into politics, you’d have thought its chance of remaining civil would be close to zero, but we seem to be managing :-) It probably helps that both left and right have come for some stick — Quayle as well as Bush — and some praise — Nixon as well as Clinton.

    I might repost the most relevant dumb-presidents comments in their own post, and continue that thread of the discussion there. It’s interesting stuff, and I have a couple more questions to ask about that and issues to raise related to what’s been said.

    By the way, let me clarify that my objection to Christianity being co-opted by the Religious Right in the USA is not primarily to do with the right-wingness of the co-opters, but the idea that a religion should be made to serve a political ideology. I don’t think I’d have much more patience with a Religious Left if that’s the way history had taken us, given that both left and right have individual policies that I strongly disagree with with (and others that I strongly agree with). Really, left vs. right is an absurd oversimplification.

  46. Hi Tagore, you’ll have to enlighten me…. where are the ‘big elephants in the room’ CSL is conveniently ignoring? Sorry, but I missed how these undercut his main arguments (??).

    Of course Lewis and other apologists’ arguments would seem weak to skeptics, or they wouldn’t be skeptics! I have a number of friends who were skeptics that became Christian because of the arguments put forward by ‘Mere Christianity’ – that’s why the ‘playing to the house’ comment doesn’t ring true for me.

    …’You can have Dirac’s equation, or you can have Christianity’ – sorry, but you’ll have to explain that one too. I can’t really see why you think Quantum Mechanics rules out Christianity (or other religions, for that matter). Basically, my issue isn’t with what you’re saying, just trying to understand the reason for some of your assertions

  47. Tagore Smith: I think you underestimate the extent to which even a very bright person can overestimate the quality of arguments for a position s/he holds. I think CSL really thought his arguments were strong.

    I agree that Clinton and Nixon were both very bright. I’m unsure about Reagan, though clearly he wasn’t (senility aside) an idiot. I’m not convinced Obama really is pretending to be cleverer than he is; he seems to have done rather well in law at Harvard, for instance.

  48. I’m not Tagore Smith, but: I think the point about Dirac’s equation isn’t that there’s some direct contradiction between QM and Christianity, but that (1) if you think about the world in the sort of way that gets you QM, then Christianity looks very silly, and in particular (2) science has made the progress it has by adopting the working hypothesis that the world operates strictly according to mechanical rules (with, perhaps, some element of sheer randomness), and the enormous success of this approach is itself good evidence that that hypothesis is correct.

    To put more or less the same thing in different terms: A large part of what gives religions (Christianity included) their plausibility is the human tendency to look for *personal* explanations for complicated things; it seems that a large part of what has given science its success is its focus on a quite different sort of explanation; and one effect of that success has been that many things for which religions have offered personal explanations in terms of gods and spirits and so forth now look like they’re much better understood in terms that are *at bottom* impersonal. (Which doesn’t mean that, e.g., minds aren’t real or consciousness isn’t real; only that they’re built out of non-mental, non-conscious bits.)

    I repeat that I’m not Tagore Smith and may be guessing wrongly at what point he was making. Perhaps he’ll come along and set me straight :-).

  49. Mike: I’m sorry you found my comments disheartening. My I ask what I said that affected you so?

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  50. WyrdestGeek asked:

    Mike: I’m sorry you found my comments disheartening. My I ask what I said that affected you so?

    Sorry, I should have been more explicit. It was this part:

    And that is why we have had so many Presidents that seemed stupid to you [...] We each of us would rather have a leader who is “just like us”. The only difference is that there’s a lot more non-intellectuals than intellectuals here in the U.S. of A.

    So: the idea that America seems to get so many dumb leaders not by accident but because people want it that way. That’s what I found disheartening.

  51. g wrote:

    I think the point about Dirac’s equation isn’t that there’s some direct contradiction between QM and Christianity, but that (1) if you think about the world in the sort of way that gets you QM, then Christianity looks very silly [...]

    Well, no. As Lewis (again!) has pointed out, much of what we think of as modern understanding of the universe, and which we interpret as being opposed in general tenor to religion, was actually known long, long ago and not considered to pose a problem at all until recently. This is touched on, among other places, in the essay Religion and Science, which Matthew Rees linked a few days ago. For example, “the earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point” in Ptolemy’s Almagest, 2nd century AD.

    [...] and in particular (2) science has made the progress it has by adopting the working hypothesis that the world operates strictly according to mechanical rules (with, perhaps, some element of sheer randomness), and the enormous success of this approach is itself good evidence that that hypothesis is correct.

    Ah, no. This is a mistake that I see all the time. Science doesn’t at all need to make the assumption that materialism is all there is; but materialism is all that it studies. And, yes, it works fantastically well — science is, without the slightest hint of a question, the absolute best way to study material questions such as how did the Earth form, how did we land up with all these species, and how do objects move through space. But that doesn’t give you one thin dime of information about matters that science explicitly doesn’t set out to explore.

    It’s as though you were a musicologist, and so study only sound patterns, ignoring vision. By applying musical analysis, you get excellent results that help you to better understand music, and so you can conclude that musicology is a fine way to study sound. But it tells you nothing about vision, and certainly doesn’t allow you to conclude that vision doesn’t exist.

  52. Mike: I think you’re refuting some imaginary sillier version of me rather than what I actually said. In particular, CSL’s quotation of the Almagest is, IIRC, as a refutation of an (also imaginary and slightly strawmanny, as it happens) argument based on the idea that until very recently everyone thought the earth was flat; I made no claim remotely resembling that. (2) While “much” of the present-day scientific understanding of the universe may have been around for a long time, much of it hasn’t. In particular, the very idea of “methodological naturalism” was largely unheard of in, say, Ptolemy’s time. What I’m conjecturing that Tagore Smith had in mind here was not some set of *facts* discovered by science, but aspects of scientific *attitude* and *method* that are no more than about 300 years old.

    As for the materialism thing: no, I am not making the naive mistake you suggest of simply confusing “science only studies the material” with “science assumes that there is nothing but the material”. (Of course I may be making a mistake none the less.) The point is as follows. Science as generally practiced makes the assumption (merely as a working assumption, in the first instance) that natural happenings have natural, lawlike causes; this assumption proves fruitful again and again, and science has accumulated a whole lot of evidence for it and none against; so *that* assumption is well supported. And now note that while, e.g., meaning and morals may not be material things and may not be best studied by the methods of science, empty tombs, and books containing stories of miracles, and people who have serious illnesses for a while and then abruptly don’t, and so forth, *are* (perhaps inter alia) material things.

    It is of course possible to construct a religion that is immune to the sort of attack this suggests. But it has to be one in which nothing of any importance is objectively observable (to whatever extent anything is objectively observable). No miracles, no future-predicting prophecies, no revelations of anything that could possibly be verified or refuted, no resurrections, etc., etc., etc. There are people who have such a religion. Perhaps you’re one of them; I don’t know. But it’s a far cry from what the Man In The Pew generally thinks, and an especially far cry from what just about any believer thought until a couple of hundred years ago.

  53. In an attempt to forestall a misunderstanding of my last paragraph: Of course a religion that isn’t so thoroughly detached from the material world might still be able to *defeat* that sort of attack — I am not claiming (though perhaps Tagore Smith would) that the attack is obviously decisive. But if you’re going to dismiss it rather than confront it (“doesn’t give you one thin dime of information”, etc.) then I think it’s worth pointing out that the remarkable success of science in dealing with material things is only *irrelevant* to the credibility of a religious position if that religious position has literally nothing to do with anything material.

    Many Christians — including C S Lewis and Matthew Rees earlier in this discussion — regard strong engagement with the material world, and some degree of empirical testability, as strengths of Christianity. So, e.g., Matthew Rees says that the miracles reported in the gospels, and especially the Resurrection, are specific miracles in specific times and places involving specific people and could have been specifically refuted had they been false. (Digression: the argument seems to me to rest on an implicit claim along these lines: “If the miracles were not real, then people in a position to know that would have said so, and this would either have been so convincing as to make people stop claiming that they were real and destroy any existing writings making that claim, or so widely spread that we would expect written copies of the refutations to survive” — and it seems to me that making that explicit is sufficient to make it clear how wrong it is. Digression ends.) This sort of celebration of engagement with the day-to-day, tangible world seems to me to be hard to reconcile with saying anything at all like “Oh, of course the success of naturalism in science is neither here nor there, because it’s relevant only to the mundane things science is concerned with, and those have nothing to do with my religion”. Perhaps that’s because no one person endorses both — but I think I’ve seen our host endorsing both in this very discussion :-).

  54. Matthew Rees

    “It is of course possible to construct a religion that is immune to the sort of attack this suggests.”

    You’ve made some mental leap between paragraphs that I don’t quite follow. In what way do “empty tombs, and books containing stories of miracles, and people who have serious illnesses for a while and then abruptly don’t,” suggest an attack on religion? When you say that “natural happenings have natural, lawlike causes,” the unstated corollary is that all happenings are natural, but that brings us back to materialism. Furthermore, within the last century advances in science have made it increasingly clear that there are some things which defy rational explanation. We use terms like “dark energy” and “quantum entanglement” as euphemisms for “we don’t know what the heck caused that.”

    The essay that follows “Religion and Science” repeats the same point at greater length. An excerpt: “The laws of physics, I understand, decree that when one billiards ball (A) sets another billiards ball (B) in motion, the momentum lost by A exactly equals the momentum gained by B. This is a Law. That is, this is the pattern to which the movement of the two billiards balls must conform. Provided, of course that something sets ball A in motion. And here comes the snag. The law won’t set it in motion. It is usually a man with a cue who does that. But a man with a cue would send us back to free-will, so let us assume that it was lying on a table in a liner and that what set it in motion was a lurch of the ship. In that case it was not the law which produced the movement; it was a wave. And that wave, though it certainly moved according to the laws of physics, was not moved by them. It was shoved by other waves, and by winds, and so forth. And however far you traced the story back you would never find the laws of Nature causing anything.”

    Granted, if the only way I was able to fit God into my worldview was as a First Cause, that would be an awfully weak foundation for Christian faith. However, there are innumerable accounts of God’s continuing influence in the universe — sometimes in ways that seem overtly miraculous, other times in ways that appear coincidental to the skeptical eye but providential to the believer. You may choose to reject all of these as irrelevant because they can’t be scientifically validated, but that’s begging the question.

  55. Matthew Rees

    “Digression: the argument seems to me to rest on an implicit claim along these lines: “If the miracles were not real, then people in a position to know that would have said so, and this would either have been so convincing as to make people stop claiming that they were real and destroy any existing writings making that claim, or so widely spread that we would expect written copies of the refutations to survive” — and it seems to me that making that explicit is sufficient to make it clear how wrong it is.”

    First point: Those that originally spread the claims that Jesus had risen from the dead were among those that died for their beliefs.

    Second point: If Jesus was never raised, the question is not “Why have no written documents refuting the Resurrection survived to the present day?” but rather “How did belief in the Resurrection become so widespread, so quickly, when it would have been so very easy to refute?” How likely is it that, 2000 years from now, Elvis-worship will be a major world religion?

    Third point: If I claimed that Julius Caesar was never murdered, without any historical documentation to support my claim, you would consider me a crackpot. But when you claim that Jesus was never raised, without any historical documentation to support your claim, you consider yourself enlightened. The difference is that the Resurrection was a miracle, and you don’t believe in miracles.

    Third point: I’m not saying that any of this proves the Resurrection beyond any possible doubt. I’m saying that the evidence for it is credible enough that it’s possible to believe in it without abandoning one’s reason.

  56. Matthew Rees

    That last is, of course, the *fourth* point. I *can* count. :P

  57. Matthew: I’ll reply to your first comment later today. On the second, point by point: (1) The evidence that those people died for their beliefs is very, very weak, but in any case I don’t see what difference it would make to the argument we were discussing (“if they were wrong then we’d know about refutations”) if they did die for their beliefs. (2) The why-no-refutating-documents question is relevant *only in so far as that argument is any good*; I don’t, in fact, think it’s any good. As to the questions you would prefer to be asked: well, there are many millions of Mormons who fervently believe that Joseph Smith found golden plates inscribed with ancient inspired texts, which he was able to decode using magical spectacles, etc., etc., etc., and frankly much of his story was always pretty easy to refute. (Not least because before he was the founder of a new religion, he was a convicted con-man.) There are even millions of Scientologists despite all the criticisms that have been levelled at Scientology, and the interval from the start of Scientology to now is … well, not so different from the interval from the start of Christianity to the documents in the New Testament, actually. Do you know of a credible argument for why Christianity ought to have failed at birth if it was wrong, that doesn’t also show that Mormonism and Scientology ought to have failed at birth if they were wrong? Or, alternatively, do you think they ought to be regarded as likely to be right since they didn’t fail at birth? (3) I don’t know offhand how good the evidence for Julius Caesar’s murder actually is (so, in particular, I wouldn’t call you a crackpot for denying it, without looking further at the evidence). But does the murder of Julius Caesar have the following characteristics? (a) The best evidence for it comes from decades after the event. (b) It comes from a small group of political partisans with a strong motive to finger a particular person for the murder. (c) Murder is an extraordinarily rare thing, so rare that many people believe it has literally never occurred and no one thinks it’s happened more than a few times in the history of the world. (My guess: (a) might be true, (b) probably isn’t, (c) certainly isn’t.) If it doesn’t, then the Caesar question and the Jesus question are quite different in important respects. (3/4) I didn’t claim (and I don’t think anyone did) that it’s impossible to believe in the resurrection of Jesus without abandoning one’s reason.

  58. Thanks for continuing to pursue this, g!

    Of course, Lewis’s quote from the Almagest was not about the tiny-Earth-distant-stars recognition itself, but stands as an exemplar that the widespread assumption of scientific ignorance in past times is not always warranted. Those who say “it was easy to believe in religion back in the end days before we had science, but that’s not true any more” are, at the very least, oversimplifying — usually based on a lack of knowledge of what was actually believed in ancient times.

    I am pleased that you say “I am not making the naive mistake you suggest of simply confusing ‘science only studies the material’ with ‘science assumes that there is nothing but the material'”. But I am sure you will understand why I thought you were making that mistake when you wrote:

    science has made the progress it has by adopting the working hypothesis that the world operates strictly according to mechanical rules (with, perhaps, some element of sheer randomness), and the enormous success of this approach is itself good evidence that that hypothesis is correct.

    Anyway, you then point out that:

    While, e.g., meaning and morals may not be material things and may not be best studied by the methods of science, empty tombs, and books containing stories of miracles, and people who have serious illnesses for a while and then abruptly don’t, and so forth, *are* (perhaps inter alia) material things.

    Here I agree. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that such things have causes that lie outside the purely naturalistic model of the universe that science works with, it would still be true that (some of) the consequences are manifested materially, and those material manifestations are subject to scientific analysis. If somebody claims a miracle healing, it is perfectly legitimate to ask scientific questions about it (in fact we might say that it would be necessary to ask scientific questions about it).

    It is of course possible to construct a religion that is immune to the sort of attack this suggests. But it has to be one in which nothing of any importance is objectively observable (to whatever extent anything is objectively observable). No miracles, no future-predicting prophecies, no revelations of anything that could possibly be verified or refuted, no resurrections, etc., etc., etc. There are people who have such a religion. Perhaps you’re one of them; I don’t know.

    No, I am not one of them. I agree that you could invent such a religion (and I guess there are plenty of them already out there to choose from, for those who are so inclined), but I wouldn’t be interested in that. It wouldn’t be enough to get my out of bed on a Sunday morning, and it certainly wouldn’t be enough to direct the overall shape of my life.

  59. g, again (and I wish he/she had a more substantial name!):

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the remarkable success of science in dealing with material things is only *irrelevant* to the credibility of a religious position if that religious position has literally nothing to do with anything material.

    You are correct. I overstated my position earlier.

    Many Christians — including C S Lewis and Matthew Rees earlier in this discussion — regard strong engagement with the material world, and some degree of empirical testability, as strengths of Christianity.

    Yes. And I guardedly agree. This is one (though not the most important IMHO) of the things that distinguishes Christianity from other religions.

    (We need to be careful, of course, to distinguish between religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s quite common for people to infer the existence of some kind of deity — for example, because they buy the “intelligent design” argument — and leap straight from that to accepting some form of Christianity. That leap would not justified, even if the argument from ID was. It’s notable that it took two years for C. S. Lewis to progress from accepting the existence of a God into actual Christianity.)

    So, e.g., Matthew Rees says that the miracles reported in the gospels, and especially the Resurrection, are specific miracles in specific times and places involving specific people and could have been specifically refuted had they been false. (Digression: the argument seems to me to rest on an implicit claim along these lines: “If the miracles were not real, then people in a position to know that would have said so [...]

    Yes. And I am more or less on board with that. Regarding human factors in interpretation of miracles reported in the Bible: the big one is of course the resurrection, on which all specifically Christian doctrine rests. The point here is that everything that disciples did subsequently — not just what they wrote but how they lived their lives — shows that they absolutely believed in its reality. A modern televangelist might claim a belief in Christianity where none really exists, because he knows he can make money that way. But all the disciples got for their claim to believe in the resurrection was persecution and eventually imprisonment and execution. People simply don’t undergo such trials to preserve the illusion of something they know to be false. So we have to assume that the disciples, who were closest to events, believed with all their hearts that the resurrection was fact. (Of course this doesn’t in itself prove that they were correct; but if they were mistaken then at the very least we must say that they were honestly mistaken.)

    This sort of celebration of engagement with the day-to-day, tangible world seems to me to be hard to reconcile with saying anything at all like “Oh, of course the success of naturalism in science is neither here nor there, because it’s relevant only to the mundane things science is concerned with, and those have nothing to do with my religion”. Perhaps that’s because no one person endorses both — but I think I’ve seen our host endorsing both in this very discussion :-).

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that rational thought has no place in religion! Especially since (remember where we started?) this article was about Lewis’s experience that Christianity tended to make people more intelligent and educated! No, all I intended was to refute the narrower, but very widespread, assumption that “Now we have science, anyone can see that all this religion stuff can’t be true”. If we can agree that that is not true, I think we may be as close as we are going to get to harmony :-)

  60. Sorry to keep commenting on my own blog(!), but I have only now seen this comment posted a few days ago by Tagore Smith, and it does deserve at least a brief response.

    Hmm- I hope I don’t break your run of polite and respectful comments here.

    I wouldn’t say you did :-)

    It’s not my intention to do so, but I guess I’m a thoroughgoing atheist, and I find Christian apologetics unconvincing.

    Disagreement with my position doesn’t make your comment uncivil!

    Lewis was certainly very _clever_, but in order to make the arguments he made he had to ignore some pretty big elephants.

    I don’t see this. If you’re going to make such a claim, I think you ought to back it up with examples.

    And that’s the thing about modern apologetics. There is duplicity at their heart. The modern apologist is ostensibly arguing with the unbeliever. But his arguments are too weak to convince a real skeptic. His writing is aimed, indirectly, at the fold. A believer can look at the apologist and say “See- here is a man who has made arguments for Christianity so strong that even the heathen are convinced,” whether or not his arguments have convinced actual heathens. I think it’s worth reading Lewis with this in mind (and I think it is more flattering to Lewis to read him that way.)

    Sorry, that won’t do at all. You are welcome to find Lewis’s arguments unconvincing, but as a simple matter of historical fact you are wrong when you claim that Lewis himself did not find them convincing. It is a matter of record that they did convince thim: they are the very arguments (though no doubt simplified for the audience he was writing to) that converted him from atheism, first to theism and ultimately to Christianity.

    Whatever else Mere Christianity is, it’s a recapitulation of his own sequence of thinking through these issues in the late 20s and early 30s.

    I’m a big Dante fan. I don’t really read or speak Italian, but I learned _Dante’s_ Italian just so I could read the Commedia. If you speak to me using only his vocabulary I will likely understand your Italian, and you will likely sound pretty odd. I’ve read the Commedia several times in Italian, and I’ve read most of the modern translations (Mandelbaum’s is best, Sayers’s rhymes, and I am fond of Ciardi’s, though it is not, objectively, a very good translation.)

    I’d like to know more of your thoughts on the translation. I’ve had in mind for years that I’d like to read The Divine Comedy but I don’t know where to start. I’d have to have a prose translation, though — I just can’t read poetry.

    Dante was (among other things) an adherent of Aquinas. He believed that reason could convince you of the existence of God, but that there was something that could not be effed (it was ineffable) about God himself. In the Commedia Virgil represents reason, and is able to guide Dante for a long time- almost into the Presence, but not quite. At a certain point Dante must give up “lo mio duco” and put himself entirely into the hands of Beatrice.

    I think that is an excellent picture. I’d agree with it myself, and my reading of Lewis suggests that he would, too. Without question, a step of faith is required to be a Christian — pure rational though alone will not get anyone there (which is why the kind of science-ist who insists that only rationalism is acceptable is on a different page right from the start). But the way I like to think of it, contrasting two well-known phrases, is that rational thought can take you far enough that only a step of faith is needed, rather then a leap of faith.

    It seems to me that you would like to go back to a time when the existence of God could be justified, intellectually. You want Christians to be out of the Aqunian tradition.

    No. I have always accepted (or, at least, for many many years) that reason alone is not enough to bring someone to Christian faith. To put it another way, Christianity is compatible with reason, but is not a necessary consequence of it.

    People like to say that science and Christianity are not at odds, but that’s nonsense.

    It is not.

    I don’t mean to be uncivil here- I am an atheist, but I am not a particularly evangelical atheist. I recognize that religion is important to a lot of people, and I don’t really want to convince them of something that would make them less happy. But I have to admit that I can’t see much difference between believing in young earth creationism and believing in some other form of Christianity.

    Again, don’t worry — disagreement is not the same as incivility! I hope that subsequent comments on this thread have shown you that Christianity is not at all on the same level as Young Earth Creationism. But if not, there’s no point in my getting upset about it.

  61. Matthew Rees

    “I don’t see what difference it would make to the argument we were discussing (“if they were wrong then we’d know about refutations”) … The why-no-refutating-documents question is relevant *only in so far as that argument is any good*”

    You’re the one that brought up refuting documents. The point I was making is that if the tomb had not been empty, it’s highly unlikely that so many people would have come to believe that it was. You clearly disagree, and since it’s (nowadays) a question of human nature and probability rather than verifiable fact, I think we’ve reached an impasse on this point.

    “Do you know of a credible argument for why Christianity ought to have failed at birth if it was wrong, that doesn’t also show that Mormonism and Scientology ought to have failed at birth if they were wrong?”

    Joseph Smith’s golden tablets notwithstanding, other individuals who have founded new religions (e.g. Buddha, Muhammad, L. Ron Hubbard) have generally based their religions on claims which were impossible to objectively refute. Which, as I’ve said, was not the case with Christianity.

    “It comes from a small group of political partisans with a strong motive to finger a particular person for the murder.”

    Apart from the “small group”, how is this analogous to the accounts of the Resurrection?

    “Murder is an extraordinarily rare thing, so rare that many people believe it has literally never occurred and no one thinks it’s happened more than a few times in the history of the world.”

    If that were so, if would make it all the more unlikely that hundreds of thousands of people would become convinced that he had been murdered.

  62. (Response to Matthew’s earlier comment and Mike’s recent ones to follow later; this is just to Matthew’s latest.)

    0. Ye gods, did I really write “refutating”? Why yes, I did. I think I originally wrote “refutations” and then tried to change it to “refuting documents”. Bleh.

    1. I brought up the (putative) refuting documents because one version of the argument we were discussing depends on them. It turns out that the version of the argument you have in mind is a different one (where the idea is that if certain Christian claims were wrong then Christianity couldn’t have got started in the first place; fair enough. My apologies for the distraction.

    2. I don’t quite see how you get from “it’s a matter of probability” to “we’re at an impasse and should give up”, but I’m happy to leave it there if you like. Except that after saying that you carry on discussing it, so, er, I’ll do likewise :-).

    3. It’s scarcely ever possible to refute anything *completely* (for instance, suppose some people are claiming that another person has been raised from the dead, and someone else digs up what is clearly that person’s body; then the True Believers still have the option of (a) insisting that it’s just another body that happens to look like that of the putative resurrectee, or (b) saying that the resurrection wasn’t *bodily* but took place in a realm that transcends the physical). All a refutation can do is to give reason to think that something is very, very unlikely. The claims of Mormonism and (especially) Scientology were as ridiculous from the outset as the claims of Christianity even if someone had dug up Jesus’s body. And yet there are millions of Mormons and (depending on whom you ask) at least tens of thousands of Scientologists today. And both Mormonism and Scientology, from their beginnings, made some highly refutable claims (e.g., AIUI Joseph Smith claimed that his “reformed Egyptian” script had been authenticated by a prominent scholar, who actually said in so many words that he thought it was a fraud).

    4. The small-group-of-partisans thing is parallel because all the surviving documentary evidence for the resurrection of Jesus comes from documents written by Christians. Now, of course, anyone who came to believe, for whatever reasons, in the resurrection would be likely to become a Christian, but if the thing were real then you might expect to find some people who had enough evidence to get them commenting on it, but not enough to be fully convinced. (I don’t think this is terribly damning in itself. It does, however, have some consequences for how we should evaluate the claims made in those documents.)

    5. Yes, if murder were super-rare then testimony of a murder might be more evidence, but it would be starting from a much lower baseline and the net effect would be a much lower posterior probability. (Consider your reactions to hearing from ten people, let’s say, (a) “Barack Obama has been shot” and (b) “Barack Obama has flown to Mars in a flying saucer”. It would indeed be more surprising in case (b) that those people had been convinced, but I bet you’d be more inclined to believe the story in case (a) than in case (b), and quite right too.

  63. The small-group-of-partisans thing is parallel because all the surviving documentary evidence for the resurrection of Jesus comes from documents written by Christians.”

    That is hardly surprising, since you’d expect anyone who accepted the resurrection to become a Christian (and so that anyone who didn’t become a Christian must have not accepted it). It’s like complaining that you can’t trust palaeontological papers because they’re all written by evolutionists.

    If the thing were real then you might expect to find some people who had enough evidence to get them commenting on it, but not enough to be fully convinced.

    As you probably know, it’s long been disputed whether or not the testimony of the Jewish historian Josephus is authentic. There is a rather comprehensive summary of arguments pro and con in the Wikipedia article.

  64. Way back near the top, Mike wrote:
    ” Still, whatever else may or may not be true, it’s apparent that in the US there is a strong correlation between people claiming to be Christian and supporting policies (such as revoking universal healthcare, driving the environment over the edge and discriminating against immigrant workers) ”

    I’m not aware of any Christian movement to discriminate against immigrant workers. However, there is a strong belief in the ‘rule of law’ and that illegal (undocumented) immigrants should not be employable in the US.

    I personally work in the software industry with many legal immigrants from China, Japan, India, Thailand, and other parts of Asia. They are all disgusted that the US allows undocumented/illegal immigrants to be employable, it makes a mockery of the very difficult process they have gone through to come to the USA.

    The media in the US tends to ignore the “illegal” prefix to immigrants in all these discussion to paint it a certain way for their own political reasons.

    Anyway, just thought I’d clear that up.

  65. Matthew Rees

    “I don’t quite see how you get from “it’s a matter of probability” to “we’re at an impasse and should give up”,”

    Because most of what I would have to say in addressing your latest points would just be repeating myself.

    “Except that after saying that you carry on discussing it”

    Only because I was addressing your points in the order in which you made them.

    “The small-group-of-partisans thing is parallel because all the surviving documentary evidence for the resurrection of Jesus comes from documents written by Christians.”

    I’ll respond to this point because you’ve missed what I was getting at. It’s not the “small group of partisans” that I was questioning (though I’ll echo Mike’s response as to the “partisan” bit), it’s the “strong motive to finger a particular person for the murder”.

  66. Okay, I’ve read the first book of “Mere Christianity” and I had to stop because I was shouting at the pages so much that people were starting to stare at me. The first two paragraphs are essentially pointing out that, in most arguments, both parties will appeal to what they consider to be a standard of acceptable behaviour and that, in most cases, these standards will essentially be the same. This falls down right away because, if both parties had the same standards of behaviour, the argument almost certainly wouldn’t have occurred. The examples given by Lewis are things like, “That’s my seat, I was there first” which, given that we are assuming that the two parties involved are arguing (instead of apologising, explaining the misunderstanding, reaching a mutually agreeable solution, etc.), means that the person sitting in the seat does not consider their actions to be against the “moral standard” and the person standing does, therefore they do not have the same standard. Who is right and who is wrong is irrelevant because the point is that they disagree and Lewis is going to spend the next 13 pages explaining why this solid “moral law” that everyone has leads to god (and then God) when his initial premise is already faulty.

    Even “divine” moral laws can’t seem to agree with one another; if you see a devout follower of one of the Abrahamic faiths beating his wife you could and probably would object, but should you try and cite divine moral law he can merrily counter with written “proof” that divine moral law says that his actions are perfectly fine. The whole idea of morality being a “Law of Human Nature” instead of a product of societal norms, upbringing, class, religious and cultural traditions, exposure to local and foreign cultures and a whole heap of other potential factors is one that can only hold if you understand nothing about how humans (and other social animals, for that matter) interact. Yes, there are usually far extremes that almost everyone can agree either are or aren’t moral (insert a tired old example involving children, Nazis or both of your choice here), but to claim that “murder” or “rape” are immoral is inherently pointless because the words themselves infer moral judgement, for example if I force myself sexually upon my wife then I imagine that most of you reading this would call that rape, but less than a hundred years ago the idea of calling such an act rape would have been considered nonsense. It is not the act itself which makes it rape, but the moral judgement upon that act which is subject to change.

    Lewis then spends the next few paragraphs riffing on the theme of objective morality, making claims like if we “take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike [us] will be how very like they are to each other and to our own”. Apparently Lewis hasn’t bothered to carry out this experiment for himself because he would’ve found that the ancient Chinese, for example, mostly followed the Confucian tradition that morality should change and adapt with the times and the situation so that harmony and social order could be achieved, so their moral teaching at any given time in any given place would be different to how it would be in another area three hundred years later. in fact that is the case with our own modern concepts of moral standards whereby things such as profanity, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, marriage, social obligation and narcotics have changed wildly of the last hundred years, in some cases moving from one position to another only to swing back again years later.

    Frankly, I haven’t the space in a comment to explain all of the issues with the reasoning in this book ( I may even be moved to start my own blog and cover the issue more deeply in a few days’ time when I have a little more time to spare), but the very abbreviated version is “moral law => moral lawgiver => god => handwaving => Christianity” and to say that Lewis doesn’t understand moral standards, human behaviour, science or the standards of evidence is a major understatement. How someone could go from being atheist to being Christian following this reasoning is beyond me, although there are those that have, including Lewis himself, but I certainly won’t be following in his footsteps until something a lot more convincing comes along.

  67. Lewis then spends the next few paragraphs riffing on the theme of objective morality, making claims like if we “take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike [us] will be how very like they are to each other and to our own”. Apparently Lewis hasn’t bothered to carry out this experiment for himself

    Indeed he has; the results are summarised in the appendix to his (rather difficult) book The Abolition of Man and make rather striking reading.

  68. [Advance warning: ouch, this is long. About 2250 words. Sorry. There's a reason why I'd hoped not to get drawn into the (ir)religious arguments...]

    Mike:

    (My name, since you ask, is Gareth. I don’t much care what you call me so long as it’s reasonably polite :-).)

    I dare say those who say “it was easy to believe [etc.]” are often oversimplifying based on a lack of knowledge. If you have actual evidence that *I* am oversimplifying based on a lack of knowledge, do please feel free to show me what oversimplification I’m making and what knowledge I lack. (I should, though, put up a disclaimer at this point: this started with a comment from Tagore Smith, and while I largely agree with the point I *think* he was making, I could be misunderstanding him; and if I’m not then I would have put it the way he did.)

    I’m glad we are agreed that miraculous healings and resurrections and so forth, in so far as they involve material things, can properly be investigated using (broadly) scientific methods; and we’re agreed that science is the best way to study material questions; and we’re agreed that the sort of religion that’s worth having has plenty of material consequences. In which case it seems to me that saying science has “not one thin dime” of information to offer on religious matters is not merely an overstatement but quite the reverse of the truth.

    I’m not sure whether it was something I said that prompted your remarks about distinguishing between religion-in-general and particular religions such as Christianity. Of course I agree. If it *was* something I said, then I probably failed to say what I meant.

    I think we know very, very little about how Jesus’s disciples actually lived (and for that matter died) after his death. In particular, I would be interested to know how you know that “all the disciples got for their claim to believe in the resurrection was persecution and eventually imprisonment and execution”. However, I think we may be at cross purposes; I haven’t been claiming that the resurrection was some kind of deliberate scam. I think that’s very unlikely, and I think the least implausible scenarios in which it was a scam have most of the disciples not being in on it.

    Of course I wasn’t saying or suggesting that you meant to imply that rational thought has no place in religion (or, more specifically, in Christianity). I’m not sure what I said that gave that impression, and in any case I’m sorry to have given it. I think the argument Tagore Smith was making — or, rather, gesturing towards — was less outrageous than “rational thought has no place in religion” and less simplistic than “now we have science, anyone can see that all this religion stuff can’t be true”. What I think he *was* saying, I’ll come to in more detail below.

    Mike (later comment, concerning the resurrection And All That):

    I agree that it’s not surprising that what documentary evidence we have that supports the resurrection comes from believers. In fact, I said as much, in so many words, in the sentence immediately following the one you quoted.

    Yes, I know of the debates about Josephus. For what it’s worth, I think it’s clear that the “Testimonium Flavianum” is mostly fake. (In particular, I don’t think it’s an example of a non-believer writing down evidence for the resurrection.) Observant non-Christian Jews don’t, and didn’t, declare that Jesus “was the Christ” and question whether “it be lawful to call him a man”.

    Matthew (concerning science and religion; this is partly in response to Mike too):

    OK, here we go. One reason why (as I already mentioned) I wouldn’t have said what Tagore Smith said is that turning it into an argument with any logical (as opposed to rhetorical) strength requires a lot of preparation and filling in of details and so forth, and … well, this thread is long enough already. But I’ll try to sketch out what sort of argument I think he had in mind, and how it differs from some of the usual caricatures which I wouldn’t be prepared to defend. (And it’ll be long and boring, and simultaneously too terse, and will still have lots of gaps.) Then I’ll come back to your specific comments.

    Consider the following claim (which I am *not* claiming to have anything resembling proof of): “The world operates entirely according to processes that we would, given complete knowledge, describe as natural; in particular, ‘higher-level’ notions such as mind, consciousness, justice, purpose, beauty and so forth all emerge as consequences of ‘lower-level’ phenomena, rather than themselves being fundamental to how the world works. The most fundamental, complete description of the world explains everything as a combination of mathematical laws and (perhaps) pure randomness.” Call this SORN, for “strong ontological reductionist naturalism”.

    An important part of how science is done is that SORN is adopted as a working hypothesis. Higher-level regularities prompt a search for lower-level explanations. Explanations in terms of mind and purpose and beauty and so forth are never seen as complete (though, e.g., an anthropologist may consider her work done when she’s explained the behaviour of some group of people in such terms; but psychologists, neurologists, neurobiologists, biochemists, and physicists may then come along and push the level of explanation down). And it turns out that SORN works *extremely well* for this purpose. And that incompatibility with SORN is a very reliable sign of something wrong (e.g., in the ideas of psychic researchers, New Age gurus, etc.). And that evidence against SORN is in very short supply, even though overturning SORN would mean instant fame and glory for any scientist.

    (Why is SORN adopted as a working hypothesis, by the way? I don’t think it’s just that scientists got lucky and stumbled across a useful technique. Rather, they found that looking for “reductive” explanations is fruitful and treating human-level concepts as fundamental isn’t.)

    Now, I repeat: I am not saying that this means SORN is right. What I think it *does* mean is that we have a lot of evidence that something extremely like SORN is extremely close to the truth, at least when it comes to the sort of thing science is able to measure. (Which — see above — overlaps considerably with the sort of thing religious doctrine and practice are concerned with.) So far as I can see, SORN itself is far and away the simplest hypothesis that has that consequence; and “much simpler hypotheses are to be preferred to much more complicated ones that don’t explain the evidence any better” is another lesson from science that seems worth learning.

    The point here is *not* “science has proved that only the material is real”. It hasn’t, and couldn’t. Nor is it “science assumes that only the material is real, and science is wonderful so whatever it assumes must be right”. It’s important here that the assumption of SORN isn’t *incidental* to the success of science. It’s a *vital part* of the success of science. Or, to put it differently, SORN has been thoroughly tested, and has so far passed every test with flying colours. I accept SORN — while acknowledging that it might turn out to be an approximation or a simplification — on much the same grounds as I accept general relativity: we’ve tried it, we’ve given it opportunities to be shown to be wrong, and it hasn’t yet been knocked down.

    So, that’s the first way in which science — or, in Tagore Smith’s terms, “the Dirac equation”, which I think is meant to stand in for the whole of modern physics — makes religion (at least the sort of religion that involves miracles and whatnot) look all wrong. There are some more.

    The second is as follows. Some more lessons from the history of science: data trumps anecdote, and measurement trumps casual observation, direct observation trumps tradition and authority. Why? Because human perception and memory and thinking are full of flaws, and techniques like measuring things numerically and replicating experiments and all the rest of it have been found effective in working around the flaws. (And *not* working around the flaws leads, time and again, to getting fooled, usually by oneself.) — So how do people acquire and keep religious beliefs? Often just by believing what an authority figure tells them; or what is written in a sacred book, which they treat as almost (or wholly) infallible because that’s the custom within their tribe and always has been; or what *feels right* in their heart; etc., etc., etc.; and when you actually look at these processes, it’s like a big list of Very Unreliable Sources Of Information, with a side order of cognitive biases. (Note: This doesn’t mean that no careful reasoning is involved at all. Only that if you try to trace the history of any particular belief held by any particular religious person, even a very clever and sensible one, it doesn’t take long to find something that just doesn’t work.)

    The third is what Mike quotes CSL as objecting to, but I think there are versions of it that don’t deserve the objections. That is: religions are full of things that used to be plausible, but don’t make any sense in the light of things discovered by science over the last few hundred years. For instance: the gospels report (quite soberly, with no obvious indication that they don’t mean what they say) that Jesus encountered many people who were afflicted by demons, causing what would now be considered medical symptoms. Affliction with demons seems to be considered a fairly commonplace state of affairs since, e.g., the authors don’t feel any need to explain what they’re talking about. Well, the demon hypothesis has not been found useful in medicine, and unless all the demons have been scared off in the last couple of millennia it seems rather unlikely that there were really a lot of demoniacs around in 1st-century Palestine. For another instance: if the historical-sounding stories in the Bible are taken at face value then human life on earth is only a few thousand years old, which of course (I can say that, right?) it isn’t. In, say, 1600 there wasn’t much reason to think that people had been around for much longer than 6000 years; now there is. And there’s no shortage of this sort of thing; time and time again scientists have the temerity to make discoveries that don’t match with something in the religious (in this case Christian) traditions. Now, of course what happens among sophisticated Christians is that it becomes common knowledge that these bits aren’t to be taken too literally; oh those silly unreasonable atheists, complaining about demons and stuff when everyone knows we don’t believe that any more! That would be fair enough — if tradition weren’t so important a part of even most sophisticated Christians’ reasons for believing what they do.

    Back to Matthew’s individual comments (2011-08-09 at 2.48am):

    “This” wasn’t referring to empty tombs and miracle stories and so forth, but to (1) the fact that those are all material things togther with (2) the enormous success of science in dealing with material things and (3) the fact that far and away the best way of dealing with material things appears to involve assuming SORN or something very like it.

    “Dark energy” and “quantum entanglement” are absolutely not used as euphemisms for “we don’t know what the heck caused that”. (I can kinda-sorta see how you might say that about dark energy; but if you say it about quantum entanglement, I’m afraid you thereby demonstrate that you either have no idea what you’re talking about or else prefer rhetoric to accuracy.)

    I think the sort of first-cause argument CSL is making in the passage you quote is very, very weak, but that’s rather a digression here, and this comment is already absurdly long, and I’m not sure what relevance the argument really has here anyway, so I propose to leave that aside.

    I’m not sure what question-begging you think I’m (actually or hypothetically) doing. I reject stories of miracles because (1) in cases where alleged miracles are carefully investigated, *at most* a tiny fraction turn out to be at all credible (hence, claims of miracles that turn out not to be miraculous are common and in fact seem to account for — at least — the large majority of claimed miracles; and (2) other attempts to determine whether the universe operates by precise low-level rules all seem to point towards the answer that it does; and (3) other evidence bearing on whether we’re in the kind of universe where miracles might be expected to occur — e.g., whether any god or gods exist — seems to me to point firmly in the direction of no gods.

    And Matthew later on (2011-08-09 at 9.48pm):

    If what you meant is some combination of “you’re not taking any notice of what I say” and “I have nothing else to contribute here”, then of course that’s fair enough, but it has nothing whatever to do with whether the question at issue is a matter of probability.

    The specific eight words “to finger a particular person for the murder” were not intended to be specifically analogous to anything in the resurrection stories. (They were there because that seemed like the obvious thing that would make “Caesar was murdered” into a matter of partisan politics.)

  69. Gareth,

    I don’t have the energy to respond to your very long comment with the rigour that it deserves (especially as it’s 2am and I am trying to finally finish my review of A Good Man Goes to War!) but I just wanted to let you know that I read it, and appreciate both your clarity of presentation and continuing civility. To all of you who dispute the existence of miracles, I offer as a counter-example this thread, which has now reached 70 comments without anyone calling anyone else a moron :-)

    Seriously — thank you.

  70. Matthew Rees

    “And it turns out that SORN works *extremely well* for this purpose.”

    I agree that science is very good at explaining certain events in terms of natural causes. I don’t think that justifies the conclusion that *all* events can be explained in terms of natural causes. In particular, I don’t believe that a) science can disprove the existence of supernatural events (though it may be able to give naturalistic explanations for events that were previously *thought* to be supernatural, such as thunder); or that b) “mind, consciousness, justice, purpose, beauty and so forth” can be explained in scientific terms. There are some things that are simply outside the scope of science.

    Science might be very useful for explaining, in great technical detail, how scraping a bow across the strings of a violin produces sound, but it can’t tell you anything about what a particular piece of music means. And it certainly can’t disprove the existence of a composer. (Though it might disprove the belief that the sound is the singing of the fairy that lives in the violin.)

    Side note: The proposition that “mind” and “free will” are an illusion produced by chemical processes in the brain suffers from a gigantic flaw — if true, it would be impossible to prove. That is, suppose that person A believes that free will is an illusion and person B believes otherwise. If both of these people believe as they do because of chemical processes in their brains, how can you ever know who’s right? You might believe that person A’s view fits the evidence better, but if he’s right, you only believe that because of the chemical processes in your brain. In other words, if you have no free will, you have no choice in what you believe.

    “The point here is *not* “science has proved that only the material is real”…. SORN has been thoroughly tested, and has so far passed every test with flying colours.”

    I *think* I understand the distinction you’re making between these two statements, but it’s a very fine distinction and not, IMO, a very meaningful one.

    ““This” wasn’t referring to empty tombs and miracle stories and so forth, but to (1) the fact that those are all material things togther with (2) the enormous success of science in dealing with material things and (3) the fact that far and away the best way of dealing with material things appears to involve assuming SORN or something very like it.”

    So how does SORN explain my friend who was dying of pancreatic failure, and then suddenly wasn’t?

    “if you say it about quantum entanglement, I’m afraid you thereby demonstrate that you either have no idea what you’re talking about”

    I’m no expert on quantum mechanics, but I was under the impression that quantum entanglement violated the theory of relativity, specifically regarding the speed of light as an absolute limit on the transmission of information.

    “If what you meant is some combination of “you’re not taking any notice of what I say” and “I have nothing else to contribute here”, then of course that’s fair enough, but it has nothing whatever to do with whether the question at issue is a matter of probability.”

    Here’s what I meant. There are essentially two possibilities here. One is that Jesus was raised from the dead. The other is that he wasn’t, but the belief that he had been became widespread very quickly even though it would have been easy to refute. I think that the first proposition is more credible/probable, whereas you think that the second one is. Since there’s no independent, objective means of identifying which of us is right, I don’t think that either of us has much hope of changing the other’s mind. (Which is not to say that changing your mind was my only goal; my main goal in continuing this discussion was to show that it’s possible to believe in the Resurrection without abandoning one’s reason — a point which you’ve already conceded.)

  71. Mike, you’re a mor-

    No, sorry, I just can’t do it. Not even for comedy. Sorry, everyone.

  72. Hi. g: I may not have read every single word, but I think I did.

    It’s safe to say that I agree at least generally with everything that g wrote in his really long post. I can safely say I consider myself a devotee of either SORN (Strong Ontological Reductionist Naturalism) or some other naturalist position close to it. The part where a SORN style philosopher sort of glosses over the whole consciousness issue with a mere hand wave as if there were no issue there bugs me. Of course, I didn’t even know SORN had that cool acronym until g used it.

    Mattew: It feels to me as though you read through g‘s long post, but that his words weren’t really able to penetrate. This often happens in discussions between people of differing belief systems. I know I myself tend to do the same thing when I try to read someone defending religion. But I tried really hard to truly read your post anyway. You’ll have to judge for yourself if I succeeded. You see, I can’t judge whether my own reading of your post was accurate because there is no way for me to separate myself from my own bias in this matter.

    On the distinction between science and SORN:
    We draw a distinction between SORN and science. Science is probably well defined as “a systematic process for learning how the natural world/Universe works.” It’s not a belief system. You can be Jewish and practice science. You can be Wiccan, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Discordian, or athiest or even some weird combination of the above and still practice science. So long as you follow the basic principles (and there is more to it than just the scientific method btw), you have a decent chance of learning things about the natural world… which was the point.

    SORN is very clearly a philosophical position or belief system. There’s a huge difference between a systematic process and a belief system. The first is a tool you use to get knowledge. The second is the thing in your mind that plays an important part in governing how you perceive everything around you every second of every day for the whole time you are alive. (At least). (Many belief systems posit a continued existence after life, and if one or more of those systems should turn out to be correct well… well we really can’t say if belief systems still play a vital roll after that–the answer varies depending on which belief system you’re talking about. The problem of answering the question is further complicated by the inability to know if the belief system is correct.)

    On spontaneous remission of symptoms:
    I have never met your friend. But I am glad to know that he did not ultimately die of pancreatic failure.

    One of my beliefs is that people believe what they believe for deeply emotional and personal reasons. A person might give dozens and dozens of solid, rational reasons to support a particular belief, but somewhere deep inside there’s an emotional, personal reason driving all that reason in just one direction. This is what forms our biases.

    In the marriage of SORN and science, it is generally science’s job to do the actual explaining. SORN only steps in to fill in the gaps. Science will (probably) never be capable of explaining everything of course. Spontaneous recovery from an illness is something that occasionally happens. It probably doesn’t happen as often as some sources might indicate–particularly if the source claiming that it happens a lot happens to be a religious authority figure trying to make a point. It’s very easy to ignore evidence that would refute what you have already chosen to believe. (See confirmation bias and read a lot.) There are other things that we know happen that we can’t fully explain. We know tornadoes happen, and we know what sorts of clouds and thunderstorm systems have the potential to form a tornado, but we still can’t say for sure why some thunderstorm systems that could have produced a tornado didn’t and why another system did. Does this mean that it must be God that’s tweaking some of those systems to form a tornado?

    Look at it in a historical context. We used to not know how yellow fever was spread. We tried all sorts of mechanisms to prevent the spread and yet when it hit an area it would ravage it. But now we do know how it’s spread. It’s spread by mosquitoes. Yeah it seems obvious now but it didn’t then, in fact it seemed like a downright crazy idea. That was the scientific process that figured that one out, btw. I’m not saying that your friends’ recovery was necessarily due to any one simple thing that is as yet undiscovered, but it could be. And how is my belief any weirder or less rational than divine intervention?

    On quantum entanglement vs. relativity:
    This point–or more properly–points like this one are common amongst people who, willfully or accidentally, have a lot of misunderstanding about science is and ain’t. if quantum entanglement violates relativity theory then all that means is that one or the other of the two theories is incomplete. Nothing new there. Back in the day, Newtonian physics was all the rage. Then Einstein came along… But oh Einstein couldn’t stand quantum theory! He thought it was crazy. He came up with thought experiments to demonstrate that if quantum theory was correct, then some really absurd things must be true as a consequence. Yeah, but it turns out quantum mechanics is (at least largely) true after all so… yeah those absurd things are apparently true as well. So it goes. Oh, and if “dark energy” is a label for something we don’t understand, it might be better to say it’s a label for something we don’t understand yet. We’ll keep right on trying. Ironically I have faith in humanity’s ability to figure out stuff about the Universe.

    IMHO, and from my particular philosophical belief system of naturalism, the ULTIMATE “euphemism for things we don’t understand” surely must be G-O-D. It can be used to explain anything, and therefore it explains nothing. That is to say: “god did it” is such a catch-all, all purpose phrase that can be easily applied to any circumstance. But as a means for technically describing the mechanics of any specific circumstance, it’s meaningless.

    On your closing paragraph:
    I’ll start with your very last point first about a person believing in the Resurrection without abandoning reason (though I know it was addressed to g: Yes I totally concede that a person can believe in a god or gods and still be rational. Every where I go in my daily life I’m surrounded by people who can do math (paying for groceries), perform feats of basic logic (short lines mean shorter checkout time, therefore I should go to the shorter line), and sometimes even color coordinate their clothing (I struggle with that one). Although I have not actually polled the people in the grocery store, it’s safe to assume that every single one of them prays to a god I don’t believe in. If asked, (most times) they would all call themselves Christian. (But just maybe if you were able to talk to each of them individually late into the night, it would be revealed that each of them had a different conception of the true nature of god–so are they all really worshiping the same one?)

    And if I were to perform that same grocery store exercise in Jerusalem , what would I find and what would it prove? It’s odd, isn’t it? A whole bunch of people there that don’t believe in the Resurrection, but that do believe in god.

    And if I were to perform that same grocery store exercise in Baghdad? Again, what would I find and what would it prove? Still more individuals that don’t believe in the Resurrection, but that do believe in god. “Curiouser and Curiouser.”

    I close with a quote from an (admittedly caustic and somewhat mean) atheist guy: “We are all atheists about most of the gods humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” – Richard Dawkins


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  73. Matthew Rees

    “SORN is very clearly a philosophical position or belief system. There’s a huge difference between a systematic process and a belief system.”

    That’s exactly what I was trying to say, but you said it more succinctly.

    (The distinction that I didn’t think was very meaningful was between the statements “science has proved that only the material is real” and “SORN has so far passed every test with flying colours.”)

    “Oh, and if “dark energy” is a label for something we don’t understand, it might be better to say it’s a label for something we don’t understand yet.”

    The point I was trying to make is that the more we learn about the more universe, the more we discover things that appear to be fundamentally beyond human comprehension. Therefore, I think it’s narrow-minded to claim (as Mr. Smith did) that science leaves no room for Christianity.

  74. Matthew:

    I am not claiming that science *disproves* the existence of supernatural events; I did try to make that clear, but I’m sorry if I failed. I did also outline what sort of conflict I think there is between science and supernaturalism, and it doesn’t seem to me that your response actually addresses what I wrote.

    I seem to have been unclear at one other point, though. I didn’t claim that science, as such, tells you anything about what a piece of music means. And, in practice, given our very finite minds, things like justice and beauty probably aren’t best addressed in terms of explanations at the level of elementary particles. I wasn’t in fact proposing that they should be studied by science (though I think mind and consciousness could and should be); the point on which we may well disagree is that I think they are phenomena that arise from the mindless-at-bottom behaviour of elementary particles (or whatever deeper physics underlies them); I don’t think you can refute that idea simply by declaring them to be out of the scope of physics. (A thing can be outside the scope of physics-the-subject, but that’s an entirely different matter from whether it’s ultimately the result of the sort of phenomena that physics studies. The former is a matter of convention; the latter is not.)

    The argument about mind and free will in your side note (which of course was a favourite of CSL’s — see e.g. his chapter on “The cardinal difficulty of naturalism” in “Miracles”; something very like it has been revived recently by a chap called Victor Reppert, who wrote a book about it called “C S Lewis’s dangerous idea”) seems to me very weak. Whether or not we have “free will”, and whether our thinking is the result of chemical process in our brains, are entirely separate questions from whether those chemical processes give results that correlate with how things are in the outside world. If they do, then “you only believe that because of the chemical processes in your brain” is no objection to the belief. (Kasparov to Deep Blue: “You only made that move because of the electrical processes in your chips.” Deep Blue to Kasparov: “Checkmate.”)

    If you don’t see much distinction between “SORN has been thoroughly tested and passed with flying colours” and “SORN is in fact correct” then you ought to either (1) accept SORN — which clearly you don’t — or (2) deny that SORN has been tested and passed its tests, in which case perhaps you could say whether it’s the “tested” or the “passed” bit that you disagree with, and why.

    It’s not SORN’s job to explain particular happenings. You might as well ask “how does the inverse square law explain how my computer is able to play CDs?”; an explanation of that might make reference to the inverse square law, but it would need a lot of other things too. I’m very glad that your friend is no longer dying of pancreatic failure; do you have good evidence that this happy fact is the result of a miracle?

    Quantum entanglement does not transmit information faster than light, and does not violate relativity’s light-speed limit. But even if it did, it wouldn’t mean that “entanglement” is a shorthand for “we have no idea what’s going on”. It would just mean that either relativity or quantum mechanics needs fixing. (There *is* a big difficulty in reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics, but it isn’t a matter of entanglement involving faster-than-light information transmission. And, yup, all it means is that relativity or QM or both needs tweaking.)

    There are at least two other possibilities concerning the resurrection, other than the two you mention. (3) He might not have been resurrected, but this might not have been easy to refute. (4) The belief in his resurrection might not have become very widespread as fast as the book of Acts would have you believe (in which case, by the time anyone would have had any reason to refute it, it might no longer have been easy). Of course you’re right that neither of us is going to be able to provide conclusive proof of our opinion about the relative likelihood of these possibilities — but if *that* is your criterion, I have no idea why you’re bothering to take part in a discussion of this sort at all!

    I think it’s a little rude to use the word “concede” about a position that the person in question never opposed. Wouldn’t “agree” be more appropriate?

    WyrdestGeek:

    Just for the avoidance of doubt, “SORN” is not a standard abbreviation; I just made it up. I was kinda hoping to find a contrary position that I could abbreviate as HROSS…

    Matthew again:

    The more we learn about the universe, (1) the more previously-incomprehensible things become comprehensible and (2) the more new things we learn about that we find incomprehensible. And the nearer we get to the limits (if limits there be) of what human beings are capable of finding out — those might be technological limits or cognitive limits or sorry-but-that-information-is-completely-lost-now limits — the more things we’ll find that seem likely to be beyond those limits. I don’t see why any of that tells us anything about whether science leaves any room for Christianity. (In any case, I don’t think Tagore Smith *did* exactly claim that science leaves no room for Christianity.)

  75. Matthew On the seemingly not-meaningful-distinction point:
    Ah! Ok. Well, to me the distinction between “science has proved that only the material is real” and “SORN has so far passed every test with flying colours.” is significant.

    To me it’s significant because I personally find the statement “science has proved that only the material is real” to be completely indefensible. Meanwhile, the statement “SORN has so far passed very test with flying colours” is a much more modest stance, and one that I’d feel comfortable with trying to stand on in a debate.

    Except maybe for the consciousness thing. For me, personally, I find the reductionist position there hard to even understand much less defend. Now I’m not saying that the reductionist naturalist position on consciousness is wrong–I’m simply saying that it’s difficult to wrap my head around. And since SORN is philosophy and not science, I don’t see any reason to try. If someone says to me, “ok, atheist guy, try explaining consciousness through your rationalist framework, huh!?” I will respond with some analogies about the distinction between a computer program written on disk or flash memory and the active running instance of a process inside a computer’s memory and microprocessor. The person might find that convincing, and they might not. Such is life. But I will not try to take the strict reductionist position that consciousness is merely an illusion because, to me, that’s crazy. That’s crazy in the same way that building (rather than accepting as given) the set of natural numbers out of sets of sets of sets of … of sets of the empty set is crazy.

    “The point I was trying to make is that the more we learn about the more universe, the more we discover things that appear to be fundamentally beyond human comprehension. Therefore, I think it’s narrow-minded to claim (as Mr. Smith did) that science leaves no room for Christianity.”

    Yes. It does seem to be the case. In any case, I would not say that science leaves no room for Christianity because, of course, science is just a systematic process for figuring out stuff about the natural world/Universe.

    It’s safe to say that SORN leaves no room for Christianity, but then SORN is really just a belief system–it’s not necessarily any better than any other. Although I do happen to really like naturalism because I can be a complete naturalist in my philosophy and yet still also be a doubter of everything–even my own belief system! I get to be completely certain that I am correct, but also acknowledge that I could turn out to be totally wrong after all. :-D IMHO, that’s awesome.

    Where was I? Oh yeah. I don’t think we have to worry about making room for Christianity. According to this page, its got quite a lot of the belief pie:
    Pie chart. For me, the question is: will Christianity (and Islam) make room for everyone else?

    P.S. I hope I’m still civil. If I was slightly whimsical or parody-ish, that was probably on purpose, but if I came across as mean, then that was not on purpose. Sometimes when I get excited, I get carried away.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  76. Matthew Rees

    “I did also outline what sort of conflict I think there is between science and supernaturalism, and it doesn’t seem to me that your response actually addresses what I wrote.”

    That’s because I can’t think of any way to respond without appealing to anecdotal evidence. I’m well aware that anecdotal evidence does not constitute proof, but that doesn’t make it false. There are some things that simply can’t be tested using the scientific method.

    “Whether or not we have “free will”, and whether our thinking is the result of chemical process in our brains, are entirely separate questions from whether those chemical processes give results that correlate with how things are in the outside world.”

    But how do you know whether they correlate, or whether you only *think* they correlate because the chemical processes in your brain make you think that? My point is not that this line of reasoning *proves* free will, only that any attempt to *disprove* free will is inherently self-defeating.

    “Of course you’re right that neither of us is going to be able to provide conclusive proof of our opinion about the relative likelihood of these possibilities — but if *that* is your criterion, I have no idea why you’re bothering to take part in a discussion of this sort at all!”

    I’m not saying that the discussion is pointless unless one of us can conclusively prove that our position is correct. I just meant that I’ve stated my case, you’ve stated yours, neither of us has persuaded the other — hence the term “impasse” — and I don’t see anything to be gained in continuing to debate that particular issue.

    “In any case, I don’t think Tagore Smith *did* exactly claim that science leaves no room for Christianity.”

    Quoth Tagore Smith: “People like to say that science and Christianity are not at odds, but that’s nonsense. You can have Dirac’s equation, or you can have Christianity, but you can’t have both, without going through some pretty amazing contortions.”

  77. Matthew Rees

    “To me it’s significant because I personally find the statement “science has proved that only the material is real” to be completely indefensible.”

    Obviously I agree with you on that point.

    “Meanwhile, the statement “SORN has so far passed very test with flying colours” is a much more modest stance, and one that I’d feel comfortable with trying to stand on in a debate.”

    Here’s the sticking-point. I’m not sure how best to articulate this, but I think what I object to is the use of “SORN” instead of “the scientific method”. The scientific method has proven very successful in providing naturalistic explanations for natural processes, but I think it’s too great a leap to say that validates philosophical naturalism.

  78. “Here’s the sticking-point. I’m not sure how best to articulate this, but I think what I object to is the use of “SORN” instead of “the scientific method”. The scientific method has proven very successful in providing naturalistic explanations for natural processes, but I think it’s too great a leap to say that validates philosophical naturalism.”
    It would not be appropriate for me to replace “SORN” with “scientific method” because they simply do not mean the same thing. The scientific method is merely a process for trying to figure out things about the material Universe. The scientific method does not, in and of itself, have anything to say about whether there is or is not a god. It doesn’t have anything to say about whether Christianity is valid or not either.

    Now, when persons make very specific claims about specific current or historical events, we can try to employee detective style reasoning in the spirit of the scientific method to try to determine the truth or falsehood of the specific claim. But that process is deductive not inductive. Moreover it’s often the case that we don’t have anywhere near enough solid information about the event in question to do any meaningful investigation.

    SORN is not science. SORN is not the scientific method. SORN is just a way of looking at the world and a way of thinking about the world that seems very compatible with science. It is not some sort of natural consequence of science either. The basic idea that perhaps the world is all there is (i.e. materialism) is very old indeed (predates Christianity). It’s just never been all that popular.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  79. Matthew Rees

    “It would not be appropriate for me to replace “SORN” with “scientific method” because they simply do not mean the same thing.”

    That’s my point exactly. I don’t agree with the statement “SORN has passed every test with flying colours”; the scientific method has proven very successful at answering certain types of questions, but I don’t believe that’s evidence for SORN.

  80. Matthew Rees

    “We are all atheists about most of the gods humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

    Said the blind man to the other blind men: “Since none of you can agree on what the elephant is like, it’s clear to me that there’s no such thing as an elephant; it’s only a figment of your imaginations.”

  81. “Said the blind man to the other blind men: “Since none of you can agree on what the elephant is like, it’s clear to me that there’s no such thing as an elephant; it’s only a figment of your imaginations.””

    Or perhaps our whole theory of the elephant is wrong headed and needs to be re-thought from the ground up. But we will not be able to adequately do that so long as each of us keeps on with our absolute certainty that our version of the elephant is correct and everyone else’s is incorrect.

    I could dispute your claim that “the scientific method has proven very successful at answering certain types of questions, but I don’t believe that’s evidence for SORN.” but I don’t see a need to make a torturous and difficult argument that would likely in the end still not convince you.

    We don’t need to have evidence for SORN because SORN isn’t scientific. We only have to have evidence for scientific ideas/notions/opinions. Everything else we are free to make up as we will. And people very often do. What I personally like about naturalism is not that there’s oh-so-much evidence to support it, but rather just that nothing in naturalism conflicts in any way that I know of with what we find by scientific inquiry. This is kind of obvious since naturalism/materialism is the philosophical stance that states that there’s nothing but the natural world/Universe and science is the rigorous, systematic investigation of the natural world/Universe.

    You can say that I’m missing out on the big picture. You can say that I’m failing to notice the very important metaphysical existence. You could even say that I’m leaving my very immortal soul in peril. And, for all I know, you could even be correct. But that possibility isn’t going to change my belief any. At 35 yrs old, and with a worldview that’s fairly much founded upon Doubt itself as a central tennat, I have chosen to be certain without proof (i.e. accept as true on faith) at least one thing: and that is that there is no world but the material world. Once again: The fact is I could be wrong (see Doubt), but regardless, here I stand.

    Occam’s Razor puts forth the notion that a simpler theory is generally better than a more complex one. In a similar vein, I would say an ontology that makes as few a number of default assumptions as possible is probably better than one that has to take a whole of things simply “on faith”. To me, naturalism looks like it’s making only the one assumption that all there is, is the natural world.

    It probably doesn’t look that way to you. To you, it may look that naturalism is dumb and that naturalism is blind to the obvious Truth that God shapes our lives and Jesus died for our sins and was reborn. To each his own. *shrug*

    Do you hold the belief that almost anything can be proven to be either true or false if only a person devotes enough time and energy to the exercise? I assure you this is not the case. There are a great many things that can never really be proven or disproven no matter how much effort you expend nor how long you go at it. There’s a smallish subset that can be proven to be more likely to be true or more likely to be false somewhat by rigorous testing. And then there’s math wherein some things can be absolutely proven, but others not. But even then, you always have to start with some initial set of axioms or postulates which are, by definition merely assumed to be true.

    There’s no way to get around the “accepting something on faith” thing. Every belief system has to start there and work its way up. I guess that’s why I don’t understand why Christians go around trying to prove that certain things in the Bible really happened. It is now, always was, and always shall be a matter of faith not proof.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  82. Matthew (August 11 @ 4.53am, #1):

    Sure, some things can’t be tested using the scientific method, if that means the full panoply of fully controlled experiments. I have no problem with anecdotal evidence, as it happens; I just think that almost everyone grossly overestimates how strong it is.

    Once again: it doesn’t matter if what makes me think the chemical processes in my brain correlate with reality is the chemical processes in my brain, provided the chemical processes in my brain correlate with reality! The argument you’re trying to make doesn’t really have anything to do with chemical processes or materialism or anything of the sort. You could equally well have said: “If both of these people believe as they do because of their freely chosen decisions, how can you ever know who’s right? … you only believe that because of your freely chosen decisions”. If you find your argument more plausible than that one, it can only be because for some *other* reason you believe that “A believes X because of his freely chosen decisions” is a reason to think X is true, whereas “A believes X because of chemical processes in his brain” isn’t. So what’s that other reason?

    No matter what you think the process is that leads to someone believing something, one of the following two things will be true. (1) The underlying process is made up of things that don’t in themselves appeal explicitly to the truth of whatever-it-is (e.g., chemical reactions in the brain). (2) At least some bits of that process *do* makes explicit reference to the truth of whatever-it-is (e.g., a mystical intuitive insight into reality). If your belief is of type 1, a skeptic can offer an argument like yours. If it is of type 2, a skeptic can say that your account of belief formation is circular since it just *assumes* that whatever makes our minds work has some kind of direct access to Truth.

    Tagore Smith certainly said that science and Christianity are at odds, and that trying to have both involves “some pretty amazing contortions”. He didn’t say that you *can’t* have both.

    Matthew (August 11 @ 4.53am, #2):

    “SORN” is not meant to be, and is not, in any way equivalent to “the scientific method”.

    Matthew (August 11 @ 4.24pm):

    Whether one thing is evidence for another isn’t a matter of opinion but a matter of fact. It is more likely that adopting SORN as a working hypothesis will lead to good results if SORN is correct than if it isn’t, so the fact that adopting SORN as a working hypothesis *has* led to (spectacularly) good results is evidence for SORN. As I was at pains to say, it doesn’t prove that SORN is right; but it does give good reason to think that something very like SORN is very close to the truth.

    (I’m about to be mostly AFK for several days.)

  83. Matthew Rees

    WyrdestGeek: I agree with pretty much everything you said about faith and proof. I never meant to give the impression that I think that it’s possible to categorically prove the existence of God or miracles; I only wished to make a case that it’s not irrational to believe in them. Mostly I’ve been arguing against Mr. Smith’s assertion that science and Christianity are incompatible. You and Gareth have been acting as his proxies, but it appears that we have different opinions as to what exactly he meant and therefore have been arguing past each other.

    g: I probably shouldn’t have brought up the question of whether free will is an illusion; it appears that one of us is not understanding what the other one is trying to say, and in any case it’s a distraction from the main discussion. As to the rest of your points, I can’t offer a response without repeating myself, so I think it’s probably best to let the matter rest.

  84. Tagore Smith

    I stopped commenting on this post because I don’t want to cause trouble, and I don’t intend to convert Christians to atheism. I tend to think that most Christians are better as Christians than they would be if they believed what I believe, even if I am right. There’s a fundamental asymmetry here- I would actually be delighted to find out that Christianity were true. My mother just died, right in front of me. I wish I thought there were something left of her,.I wish I thought we would be reunited in heaven. I’m afraid I can’t think either proposition true. But I am not all that interested in arguing about it. If nothing else, I see the utility of belief. If we can keep science separate from belief I will be satisfied. I don’t mind creationists, but I loathe proponents of ID- it might seem a subtle distinction, but it is not.

    ” as a simple matter of historical fact you are wrong when you claim that Lewis himself did not find them convincing. It is a matter of record that they did convince thim:”

    First, we don’t know that these are the arguments that convinced Lewis. Second we do know that they were the sort of arguments that would convince Lewis, if they convinced him. One of the reasons I hesitate to step into this is that there are too many tautologies…

    I appreciate Gareth’s attempts at explicating my position, but I would have stated a lot of things more strongly and.. well, there goes civility. So thanks, g.

    I’m a big Dante fan. I don’t really read or speak Italian, but I learned _Dante’s_ Italian just so I could read the Commedia. If you speak to me using only his vocabulary I will likely understand your Italian, and you will likely sound pretty odd. I’ve read the Commedia several times in Italian, and I’ve read most of the modern translations (Mandelbaum’s is best, Sayers’s rhymes, and I am fond of Ciardi’s, though it is not, objectively, a very good translation.)

    I’d like to know more of your thoughts on the translation. I’ve had in mind for years that I’d like to read The Divine Comedy but I don’t know where to start. I’d have to have a prose translation, though — I just can’t read poetry.

    Don’t bother with a prose translation of the Commedia- if you can’t read verse you should give the Commedia a miss entirely. But you would do better to learn to read verse… almost all significant literature before about 1650 is verse.

    Dante was (among other things) an adherent of Aquinas. He believed that reason could convince you of the existence of God, but that there was something that could not be effed (it was ineffable) about God himself. In the Commedia Virgil represents reason, and is able to guide Dante for a long time- almost into the Presence, but not quite. At a certain point Dante must give up “lo mio duco” and put himself entirely into the hands of Beatrice.

    I cannot make that leap- perhaps I am all Virgil and no Beatrice.

    I won’t argue with the rest except to say that if you believe in a God of the gaps you must at least admit that he has resigned himself to increasingly narrow gaps, rather fortuitously.

    I don’t think you do believe in that God though- I think you believe in a God who performs miracles when it suits him. I think I ought to be able to find traces of those miracles in the world, but I can’t.

  85. Tagore Smith

    Err- almost all significant _English_ literature before 1650 is verse. I’ve been trying (and mainly failing) to read Genji in the original lately. Certainly significant, and certainly prose.

  86. Tagore Smith: I haven’t ever read the Divine Comedy. I would like to, but verse is kind of rough for me. I mean, it would be pretty easy except that it’s always verse from 100 years ago or more. For instance, if I want to tackle a Shakespear play, I have to have footnotes and go really slow to ensure that I actually get what he was writing.

    Although I suppose I could take another approach to it: I could just decide from the outset that I’m simply going to be missing large swaths of meaning on the first time through. But if I like what I think I read, I could go back into it again and again.

    So, with that in mind–do you know of any good English verse translations of it in audio book form? (If I like it enough, I can always go learn Dante-Itallian someday.)

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  87. Tagore Smith

    I don’t know much about audiobooks, but of the English translations I’ve read (and I’ve read at least part of quite a few of them,) I like the Mandelbaum translation best. The Amazon page for his translation says that there is an audiobook edition available through Audible.

    The thing about the Commedia is that without footnotes you _are_ going to miss big chunks the first time through, unless you are an expert on a lot of things that very few people are expert on these days. One of the reasons I got sort of obsessed with it for a while is that it rewards rereading, and it rewards related study. It’s a work you can spend a lot of time with. IIRC I first got interested in it while avoiding studying for midterms, which leaves you with a lot of time on your hands if you do it right.

    The Commedia is interesting in that it addresses themes that are pretty universal, but also spends a lot of time on what were the local politics of Dante’s Florence (and Tuscany, and Holy Roman Empire.) This is part of what makes it great, but it is fairly demanding. It is very enjoyable even if you can’t tell Guelph from Ghibelline though, so don’t let that discourage you.

  88. Tagore Smith

    I should add that (since saying “give it a miss” is not very helpful) if you are primarily interested in the theology of the Commedia and prefer prose the “Summa Theologica” is probably what you ought to read. There are any number of other books on Thomism. I prefer Dante, as I think theology best when leavened with a bit of verse, story, etc. But, as they say, YMMV.

  89. Tagore Smith

    Mathhew Rees says:

    “g: I probably shouldn’t have brought up the question of whether free will is an illusion:”

    I tend to think that questions about free will are badly posed. But let’s assume they aren’t, and that “free will” means something. Here’s Tagore’s wager:

    You should believe in free will because if will is free you are correct, and if it isn’t you are predestined to be wrong and can’t do much about it.

  90. “Just for the avoidance of doubt, “SORN” is not a standard abbreviation; I just made it up. I was kinda hoping to find a contrary position that I could abbreviate as HROSS…”

    I dare someone to come up with a position abbreviated as PFIFLTRIGG.

  91. What would PFIFLTRIGG that one stand for?

  92. Sorry to be late to the party, great stuff! I came to ‘Mere Christianity’ by way of Huston Smith’s “Why Religion Matters” and several works by Marcus Borg, (Taking the Bible Seriously, Not Literally, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The God We Never Knew, The Heart of Christianity, etc..). Before reading any of those, and after 30 some years of studying comparative religions I happened to literally stumble into this little neighborhood Church of the Brethren earlier this year a few blocks from where I live. I sang in Lutheran and Presbyterian choirs as a kid, but hadn’t attended church in many many years, the fundamentalists had just made such a mess of things. Imagine my suprise when I found out what has been quietly evolving all these years throughout many mainstream Christian denominations.!! Apparently it’s still not widely known since the conservative fundamentalist right continues to dominate the media with so much disinformation, but there is a tremendous grass roots groundswell underway to get back to basic Christian values and to revisit both the historical and the metaphorical aspects of Scripture. Lewis, being a medieval scholar, understood the historical and cultural contexts of Scripture, and also appreciated the deeper meaning “behind the words” a metaphoric vision allows. He could see that ever since the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ science and religion were becoming more and more polarized. The scientific method was so successful on a material level, religion followed suit and tried to justify itself in it’s own ‘literal’ sense, which put intelligent thinking folks in the uncomforable position of defending all kinds of preposterous notions. Without a metaphoric appreciation for the teachings, one was forced to accept as literal fact things that simply would not fit with the new emerging scientific worldview. Check out Marcus Borg for a much more comprehensive understanding of this, it’s still quite new to me, but it feels right. My daughter and I sing and play guitar and viola in a little musical group at our community church now every week where we are developing quite a diverse repetoire of songs for worship from a variety of traditions.

  93. I’ve never even heard of the trilemma until now. I agree with others that point out that it is a little bit simplistic. How about confused or ambitious as possible options? These are less judgmental than lunatic, and I think they are probably more accurate in spirit. To call him a lunatic would be to ignore the historical period in which he lived. He grew up in a culture literally saturated with the idea of prophecy and messianic visions, and he no doubt absorbed this and it colored him outlook. And let’s not forget Jesus was first and foremost a rebel.

    All I’m saying is it’s easy to apply our 20th century labels to historical figures, but it is inherently unfair and doesn’t really contribute to any real understanding of their character. We could label virtually any European of the 19th century or earlier as a racist, but I’m not sure it really conveys much in spirit.

    In the same way we could label virtually all spiritual and religious figures from the past as lunatics (Joseph Smith, e.g., who also grew up in a world saturated with spiritualism… New England during the era of the Great Awakenings), as well as alchemists and many of the natural philosophers as well, but our label is little more than an act of judgmental and prideful hindsight.

    So, anyway, I guess you can tell from my post I’m inclined to take the “lunatic” horn of the trilemma, but I think perhaps this is too harsh.
    ;)

    Now, as for many of Jesus’ later day followers, I won’t hesitate to apply the word lunatic to them. Many, but not all, of course.

  94. Interesting post! I’ve always enjoyed C. S. Lewis philosophy / theology books even though they’re quite an undertaking. It took me 5-6 times through his atheism conversion story, “Surprised by Joy”, to fully understand it. I never finished “Mere Christianity.”

    Two other books I would recommend would be Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ”, an atheism conversion story, this from a Chicago Tribune reporter. He was a total bulldog researching the topic. His wife converted to Christianity and he set out to prove it was mythology.

    I would also recommend Peter Kreeft’s “The Modern Scholar: The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.” I got that one on Audible and I’m not sure if it is in print form. As a Catholic and a scientist, I just don’t get the scientific arguments against God. Catholic catechism says that if proven science conflicts with theology, then theology must be wrong and must be reexamined. There’s no conflict at all. I think a lot of people don’t understand that theology evolves just like other disciplines. Lord knows we don’t still cling to the Bohr model of the atom. God gave us reason for a reason, you know.

    I’d better stop here. I’ve got about 100 books to recommend. Thanks for sharing and God bless!

    OK, one more. Search “Father Greg Boyle” on YouTube and watch one of his talks. Great stuff. He works with gang members in LA. His book is called “Tattoos on the Heart.” I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard one of his talks. Simply beautiful. He is a great model for living your faith.

  95. OK, but here is the real question: why can’t we measure the soul?
    I am made of atoms. When I act- well I act because larger structures cause me to act as I do.

    Christianity implies the existence of a soul. Where is it? Through what mechanism does it alter my actions? Why is it that if my brain is damaged I will act oddly?

    More importantly- where is this soul? If it can’t be measured, it is not real.

    Best
    T

  96. If it can’t be measured, it is not real.

    I’m having a hard time thinking of something a scientist would be less likely to say. Radio waves could not be measured until we had invented the technology to do so. We are just at the point of being able to detect gravity waves (maybe). The universe is probably full of measurable phenomena that we simply haven’t figured out how to measure yet.

    I’m not arguing, by the way, that the soul will someday be measurable by some kind of device–that’s close to the opposite of the point that Mike and others have been making. Just pointing out that the statement, “If it can’t be measured, it is not real” is, even on atheistic grounds, insupportable.

  97. Matt is right, of course, that “if it can’t be measured, it is not real” is not scientific.

    I am going to take another step and say that even in so far as it is scientific, it’s not right.

    Our lives are made up of a hundred things that are real but not measurable even in principle. The quality of sunlight that transforms your mood after a week of overcast days; the poignancy of Still Crazy After All These Years; the heart-swelling sense of honour and decency when Santos offers Vinick the post of Secretary of State; the piercing half-real clarity of Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte; love.

    I strenuously resist the reductionistic impulse to claim either that such things are mere artifacts of an evolutionary process, that they are are “not real”, or — heaven help us — that they are “not relevant”. In truth, these things are what we are. They are the first things we know as children, they are the last things we will remember as old age claims us. They are what make us human. They separate us from automatons. You can argue that, for example, love within the family has the evolutionary explanation that children’s survival chances are enhanced if their parents “love” them. And that’s true so far as it goes; but it only explains what love is made of, not what it is. That is something else altogether, and science is not the right tool for understanding it. For that, you need art.

    Don’t mistake me — I am a big fan of the scientific method, and I think my publication record bears that out. But it’s an all-too-common tendency in scientists of my acquaintance to observe that the scientific method works well for many kinds of inquiry, and leap by faith to the conclusion that it’s always the best way of understanding anything. It’s a leap that’s quite unsupported by evidence. And from there, it’s only a short step to unconsciously assuming that “right” is the same as “scientific”. But it’s not. It never has been. Humans had understanding long before they had science. My fear is that in focussing too intently on the scientific method, we lose sight of other ways of knowing — and therefore, of of other things to know.

  98. I guess I’d say this: Just because something can’t be measured, that is not sufficient to say that it can’t be real. I think it is all right to say that if a thing can’t be measured then that thing is not scientific.

    I agree that there are lots of nouns (i.e. persons, places, things, or ideas) that are important but not strictly measurable.

    I don’t think that those things’ un-measurability is a necessary pre-condition to them being special or meaningful.

    I can sense I’m already beginning to lose my own ability to plow through the dense, complex briar patch of concepts I’ve invoked here. So let me please move sideways into analogy…

    Let’s take music. The whole thing. We can reductionalistically analyze it five ways to Sunday:

    We can note the mathematical precision of the notes. We can find that some of the Beatles’ songs have a correlation to 1/f noise. We can use analog-to-digital samplers to store an approximation of the music as ones and zeroes. We can note how many different areas of the brain are affected by music (as opposed to just the auditory processing area(s)). We can even get a computer to compose semi-randomly generated music given a good enough set of rules.

    But none of that has anything to do with the beauty of the music itself. Oh–and don’t misunderstand me–we can analyze the beauty too–or rather, we can do big statistics based on how popular a piece of music is or alternatively, we can have some composers make some new, never-before-heard music and have a person each listen to it in private then rate it on their own and aggregate and try to isolate whatever qualities/features/characteristics make the music “good”.

    We can analyze to our hearts content. But analyzing it won’t ever be the same thing as appreciating or liking it.

    What I’m attempting to get at is that I agree that it’s insufficient/not fair to say that a thing that can’t be measured isn’t real. However, I do not feel it’d be safe or fair to say that any of the things that can be measured are less meaningful than the things that can’t be measured.

    I think, however, I could agree that the act of appreciating a thing in a qualitative, non-analyzing, non-measuring way is maybe more noble, more pure than merely always analyzing and measuring.

    Of course, for some geeks like me, it’s possible to get caught up in the beauty of the results of the analysis. :-)

    (Apologies in advance if none of that made any sense.)


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  99. But neither of you address my questions. Radio waves _can_ be measured. Gravity can be measured, even if we cannot measure its constituents.

    And Mike- why do you think that the materialist view is as reductionist as you seem to think it is? Why is the presence of a non-material soul a better explanation of my aesthetic experience than the fact that I am a very complicated, but entirely material thing? Or are you arguing for a soul that is material, but so-far undetected?

    And that’s where the problem lies- if you want to argue for a soul, these days, you have to make up your mind as to whether this soul is material or not.

    If you decide that the soul is material you must figure out where it is hiding, and how it affects human action- after all, a soul that does not affect our actions is a poor soul indeed. In any event, _the onus is upon you_ to demonstrate the existence of the soul as a material object. There is really very little room for it these days, so it must have hidden itself very cunningly.

    On the other hand, you can decide that the soul is not material. But in that case, you must explain how something not material can affect things material. It is clear that our actions- nay, who we are- is mostly based on a chain of material events. If I cut into your skull and snip out a few connections in your brain, you become an entirely different person, with an entirely different personality (and this is not just academic- my mother suffered just enough brain damage, when I was a kid, to change her irreparably, while leaving enough of her untouched that she was, to my eyes “the same person.” But she was not quite the same person- she did a lot of things that she would have thought unthinkable before her accident. And people who suffer a bit more brain damage become completely different, in many cases.)

    I’ll admit that the idea that subjective experience (Nagel’s “qualia”) is entirely material is unsettling to me. But argument from incredulity is not a very strong form of argument, and I’m not seeing a stronger argument than that from either of you.

  100. And I should add that the scientific method is not what’s at work here. I am not proposing that we establish a series of experiments, with strong controls, meant to establish the existence or non-existence of the soul. I can’t really figure out how you would devise such an experiment. I guess it’s worth noting that we don’t believe in evolution because of a lot of lab experiments- in fact evolution owes very little to the sort of “scientific method” you are talking about here. And this is one of the things that ID proponents use to attack the theory of evolution.

    The scientific method is a very useful method. But it is a small part of a worldview that I would describe as Missouran. Missouri, you might recall, is the “show me” state. The scientific method is one way of showing people things, credibly. There are others, of course, and sufficient observation is one of them (and, actually the one that establishes evolution as fact.) But this observation must, in the end, be divorced from interpretation.

    I am willing to accept the existence of a soul if you can show it to me. But I think there is less and less room for one as we understand the world more. And there is less and less reason to require one.

  101. Isaac, I’d agree with just about everything you said there. I didn’t mean to suggest that things we can’t measure are necessarily in any sense better than those we can. Only that they are equally real, and that a given measurable thing may be more or less important than a given unmeasurable thing.

    Tagore, let’s drop the emotive and baggage-ridden word “soul” for now — we can always bring it back later if it’s useful. Instead, let’s think about what I mean when I say “I don’t believe my self is only neurons”, or indeed “I believe Liverpool will qualify for the Champions League this year”. In fact, the real question is what I mean by “I”. There is evidently a thing that holds opinions; and that makes decisions. What is that thing? A materialist view would say that the self is an emergent property of the neurons of my brain, and that each of those neurons is a physical thing that fires or doesn’t according the laws of chemistry which in turn are determined by the laws of physics. And now we come to the bottom line: I just don’t buy it. You say that an argument from incredulity is not very strong, but I fundamentally disagree. The simple truth is that I know I hold beliefs and make decisions. “I think therefore I am”, Pascal wrote; but the materialist position denies that I think. I can’t accept that. So there is a thing that is me that is piloting the me that you see and whose words you read.

    And of course if you wish to call that thing my “soul”, that wouldn’t be inappropriate. But I don’t insist on it.

    Once I put it like that, it should be obvious that I am not arguing for a physical soul: the very notion is a contradiction. Because what is physical is deterministic, and I know — you could almost say it’s the only thing I truly know — that I am not deterministic. So I am not purely physical.

    This isn’t something that I particularly expect to persuade you of. But to me, it’s obvious. How could it be otherwise? The alternative is that I am not a person; and I know that I am a person.

  102. I am willing to drop the word “soul.” although I think that having to drop it represents problems for Christianity- if the baggage-ridden word must be dropped, I am not sure where Christianity goes from there.

    The thing is that I am not all that interested in Christianity. I am, on the other hand, very interested in the question we are getting at here- is there an “I?”

    If it’s worth anything, I should say that my intuition is not very different from yours. Where we differ is in how much we are willing to trust out own intuitions. It seems obvious to me that there must be an “I.”

    But I have always asked other people to go beyond what they think obvious. When I was in University I was approached a lot by Mormon missionaries, who were trying to convert me. I took the attitude toward them that I took toward the Jehova’s witnesses who used to come to my house (mainly because I took that attitude, I guess.) I was willing to let them try to convert me, if they would allow me to try to convert them at the same time.

    I’m pretty sure no one got converted, and I think I wasted a lot of their proselytizing time, but I had fun. I’m not sure they did, but I never treated any of them with the sort of contempt many people do- I understood that by their lights they were trying to do me the biggest favor imaginable.

    One place we tended to hit a sticking point was trees. That sounds a bit funny, but I think they must train Mormon missionaries to point at the nearest majestic Spruce and ask “Do you think that tree could have come to be randomly?” Well, I don’t think that question even makes any sense, but I do think that the Spruce could have (and has) come to be because of selective pressures over a great deal of time.

    But I could never get any of the Mormon missionaries to even understand what I meant by that. Their intuition about this was so strong that it was not able to admit arguments to the contrary.

    I must admit that I am the same way when it comes to the “I.” Of course there is an “I.” How could I think otherwise? If there is one thing I know, and only one thing I know, it is that there is an “I.” Whether or not there is a “You” is an open question, but there is an “I.” I know it as surely as a Mormon knows that a Spruce could not arise randomly…

    And I guess this is where we diverge. We have the same intuition, but we differ in how we assign weight to it.

    What we have begun to understand about the world argues against the “I” that seems so intuitive. And I have come to wonder if the “I” is not more like a rainbow than like the rain that makes it. Or rather, if it is not like a rainbow looking at itself. Maybe the “I” is not a thing, but a phenomenon. And maybe the “I” is, in fact, epiphenomenal. Maybe it is like light dancing off water, if light dancing off water could look at itself- but now we get into dizzying paradoxes of perspective. I’m just Roy G Biv-skying here ;).

    As a matter of practicality we must act as if there is an “I” and there is a “yo,u” and there is a “he.” But I am enough a Missouran that when presented with some evidence that there is no real “I” (and there is certainly a lot of evidence in that direction) I am willing to abandon my intuition, just as I asked those Mormons to abandon their intuition that only God can make a tree.

  103. I should add that I don’t think that the material is necessarily deterministic, and that if you think so I would be glad to be shown that that is the case.

  104. Matt: thanks for your response above.

    The only problem with the un-measurable stuff: when a thing has the property that is can’t be measured, how do you determine if it’s real? In order to not be able to be measured at all, it’s gotta not register (at least directly) to any human sense and it’s gotta not be detectable on any piece of reliable scientific equipment yet invented.

    What have you got left at that point? Souls, invisible pink unicorns and, deities you’ve also got some other stuff I feel is important like love, kindness, integrity, humor, and “human nature”.

    Of course those things can be indirectly measured, very imprecisely via testing. What we perceive to be the resultant effect of demonstrating (or not) one of those emotions or states of being. (or influence of a deity or unicorn or the FSM)

    It’s still all just guess-work though. When you get really, deeply philosophical about it, you can’t actually define love much less measure it accurately.

    What I think happens is that people wind up just relying on their “common sense” to help them define the un-measureable whatever-it-is. But all “common sense” really means is “my own particular set of weakly and deeply held beliefs and opinions that I have been cultivating for my whole life.”

    it can be very hard to determine whether a specific posited non-measurable thing is real. And even when we do all agree that a specific instance of an un-measurable thing is real, we have an awful hard time defining what the heck it is we’re talking about in a manner that we can truly agree on.

    Even if we drop the “soul” word, the problem of it’s being a thing-not-measurable does not go away. (By the way, why must it be the case that measurability and material-ness have to go together? Couldn’t a thing be measurable yet immaterial ? (light) Couldn’t another thing be un-measurable yet material? (it’s a lot harder for me to think of an example for this one I’ll admit, but just for the heck of it I’ll throw out the concept “Consciousness”)

    And what the heck is consciousness? Yes we probably agree it is the “I“-ness inside me that’s driving the typing, but what does that even mean? Although I consider myself a materialist, I’m not going to say that thinking is an illusion. I also won’t say with certainty that thinking is real.

    I guess whenever I confront something un-measureable I categorize it as real, not real, or indeterminate based on conditional/situational factors

    When (what we now call classical) Newtonian physics was all the rage, I believe it was the commonly accepted philosophy that, that meant the Universe had to be deterministic.

    But these days, we’ve got Quantum physics with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Schrödinger’s Cat, and all that jazz.

    Sure, on the macro scale the Newtonian stuff still works ok (provided you’re not going at near light speed). But on the atomic and sub-atomic scales, things get all kind of weird. It turns out our Universe is maybe all probabilistic and not even remotely deterministic at the fundamental sub-atomic level.

    Of course I think we should probably decide whether we are going to alter our philosophy to fit known scientific discoveries or whether we are going to alter (read: ignore) science discoveries to fit with our philosophy and just carry on regardless.

    THE DOCTOR: The very, very powerful and the powerless have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. — from the The Face of Evil adventure (side note: the original name was going to be The Day God Went Mad)

    If we are going to do the former, then we will need to stay abreast of the latest scientific research and be ready to alter our view of the very Universe itself based on new discoveries from science.

    The latter approach is a lot easier which is one reason why so many people (unconsciously) choose it.

    It isn’t very easy to stay up on every single new scientific discovery as it comes out. So what I try to do is, I check in every now and then, and I try to have a philosophy that’s very science friendly. That way the odds that any particular discovery is going to come along that forces me to re-evaluate everything is pretty low.

    Again–sorry for my semi-nonsense rambling. :-) It’s just my normal speech pattern it seems.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  105. Thanks, Tagore, for some interesting and persuasive points. Let me start with a clarification, addressing your second and shorter message:

    I should add that I don’t think that the material is necessarily deterministic, and that if you think so I would be glad to be shown that that is the case.

    I was very sloppy here. What I mean is this: materialist philosophy holds that material behaviour is either deterministic (like a brick falling) or strictly non-deterministic (like quantum-level events). Although these might seem like opposites, they have in common the very important quality that they exclude agency. And since I am an agent (I make decisions, I perform actions) I can’t accept that I am either deterministic or non-deterministic; and therefore I can’t accept that I am (purely) material.

    I am sure you don’t agree with this; but at now I hope I’ve said it in a way that makes it clear.

    I am willing to drop the word “soul.” although I think that having to drop it represents problems for Christianity- if the baggage-ridden word must be dropped, I am not sure where Christianity goes from there.

    Well, the heart of traditional Christian theology is very far away from the notion of a soul, and further still from the use of that specific word. It doesn’t appear in the Nicene Creed, the Apostle’s Creed or the thirty-nine articles, for example.

    But it’s true the the concept of an “I”, of people being people and not automatons (whether deterministic or non-) is taken as read by Christianity. Again, whether you want to call that a “soul” or not isn’t very important. I suggested that we might dump the word because it carries a lot of baggage that is not intrinsic either to Christianity or to philosophy in general. But the concept is of course crucial to — well, everything.

    If it’s worth anything, I should say that my intuition is not very different from yours. Where we differ is in how much we are willing to trust out own intuitions. It seems obvious to me that there must be an “I.”

    But I have always asked other people to go beyond what they think obvious.

    Haha, yes, I certainly can’t disagree with that. As a general principle, I think it’s spot on.

    (Of course, it cuts both ways. If you’re prepared to entertain the possibility that your intuition is wrong when it tells you that there is an “I”, then you also have to remain open to its being similarly misled on matters like the existence of a deity, the possibility of miracles, etc.)

    One place we tended to hit a sticking point was trees. That sounds a bit funny, but I think they must train Mormon missionaries to point at the nearest majestic Spruce and ask “Do you think that tree could have come to be randomly?” Well, I don’t think that question even makes any sense, but I do think that the Spruce could have (and has) come to be because of selective pressures over a great deal of time.

    But I could never get any of the Mormon missionaries to even understand what I meant by that. Their intuition about this was so strong that it was not able to admit arguments to the contrary.

    Hello! Evolutionary biologist here! :-)

    Yes, your example is an excellent one. It is certainly the case that the intuition that organisms could not have come about without design — common among religious people — is incorrect. We have a specific, coherent, tested and repeatedly validated scientific theory on how.

    On the other hand, your Mormon friends would probably also have had an intuition that the universe as a whole couldn’t have got here by accident, with its conveniently calibrated universal constants, its surprisingly useful properties of common compounds, and so on. And given the current state of scientific knowledge, that intuition seems much more credible.

    All this tells us, I suppose, is that sometimes our intuition is reliable, and other times it isn’t.

    I must admit that I am the same way when it comes to the “I.” Of course there is an “I.” How could I think otherwise? If there is one thing I know, and only one thing I know, it is that there is an “I.” Whether or not there is a “You” is an open question, but there is an “I.” I know it as surely as a Mormon knows that a Spruce could not arise randomly…

    And I guess this is where we diverge. We have the same intuition, but we differ in how we assign weight to it.

    I think that in the run-up to this key question, we are pretty well in agreement: that intuition is a useful but certainly not infallible guide. The big question is whether we can trust what intuition tells us about the existence of “I”. And here, I don’t see how I can possibly say “no” without all my other thoughts coming tumbling after. If I am just an automaton (deterministic or non-), then none of my thoughts have any actual meaning. Nothing they tell me can be trusted (and indeed there is no “me” to be told, or to trust). At that point, I am left with a reductio ad absurdum. And since I know I am not absurd, I have to conclude that the premise was false.

    I think, therefore I am.

    What we have begun to understand about the world argues against the “I” that seems so intuitive. And I have come to wonder if the “I” is not more like a rainbow than like the rain that makes it. Or rather, if it is not like a rainbow looking at itself. Maybe the “I” is not a thing, but a phenomenon. And maybe the “I” is, in fact, epiphenomenal. Maybe it is like light dancing off water, if light dancing off water could look at itself- but now we get into dizzying paradoxes of perspective. I’m just Roy G Biv-skying here ;).

    I have read a lot of this kind of thing, notably in Hofstadter and Dennett’s delightful anthology The Mind’s I. Although it’s fun to read and think about, I’ve never been able to persuade myself that it comes anywhere close to explaining what a self is. It simply doesn’t address the question.

    As a matter of practicality we must act as if there is an “I” and there is a “yo,u” and there is a “he.” But I am enough a Missouran that when presented with some evidence that there is no real “I” (and there is certainly a lot of evidence in that direction) I am willing to abandon my intuition, just as I asked those Mormons to abandon their intuition that only God can make a tree.

    See, whenever someone writes things like like, my eye is drawn to the “we” who must act, and the “I” that is enough of a Missouran. What it tells me that everyone — whatever their stated philosophical position — agrees with you in acting as though they are real. Which tells me that, when push comes to shove, that’s what they believe.

  106. Isaac, there’s not too much there for me to disagree with. I will just comfort you with the observation that only a tiny, tiny proportion of scientific discoveries have any philosophical implications, so you really don’t need to worry too much about keeping up with the literature!

    The bottom line is this: how do we know what we know? Everything we know and understand is predicated on the assumption that our thought processes are meaningful — that thought is real. If that is not true — if thought is just the deterministic or non-deterministic firing of neurons, and has no actual meaning — then all of our conclusions are meaningless, including of course the conclusion that thought is just the deterministic or non-deterministic firing of neurons. If it can be proved to be true, then that very proof breaks itself. Because any such proof comes down to “All thoughts, including this one, are meaningless”.

  107. I thought that being able to accept logical contradictions on faith (like being determined / non-determined) and having thoughts that are not meaningless) was one of the things that religions often required of their believers.

    On keeping up with science, a side-note: I only brought up the Uncertainty Principle, et. al. because it momentarily seemed as if you were saying that current science indicated that we must be deterministic.

    I see now that, that wasn’t what you were saying. Sorry about that.

    It seems that you’re saying that you can’t hold with the notion that we are purely deterministic things or the notion that we are non-deterministic things because neither of those allows for an outside agent with an “I” in it.

    Personally, I don’t see why we can’t just get Spinoza-esque on the whole thing:

    namely, that mind and body are one and the same thing, conceived first under the attribute of thought, secondly, under the attribute of extension.
    quote link

    The Spinoza idea solves the problem of dualism vs. plain materialism (where mind/consciousness/soul has to be an illusion) by saying that “mind” (thought/consciousness/soul) and “body” (extension/motion/movement) are really just different ways of looking at the same thing. It does have the weird consequence of imagining that all things have a “mind”/consciousness/soul of some kind. But I’m ok with that.

    (My philosophy 101 teacher kept using a piece of chalk as the example.

    He would hold it in the air and say, “so consider the `mind’ of this chalk. As I hold it in the air, perhaps it is thinking, `I’m a piece of chalk content to be held here in the air.’
    “Then as I let it go, because of gravity it falls. As it falls perhaps the chalk thinks `I decided it was time that I should fall now.’
    )

    So from the chalk’s perspective, all the things that happen to it are conscious choices that it is making. It looks differently from our perspective of course. We see the chalk as an unthinking determined thing. Who is to say who is really correct? Remember that Trillian’s white mice were really hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings that had been manipulating our human lives for millennia for one single purpose. Look at the state of the average alcoholic or drug addict. They consider themselves to be in control, at least for a long time even when they’re not.

    So do we have free will or are we determined? Perhaps it’s a bit of both, or perhaps it’s just a matter of perspective.

    When you look back on human history, from our perspective, the life of everyone that is now deceased is totally determined because it’s in the past. We already know what the result was. Does that mean that those persons didn’t have any choices or free will when they were alive?

    And now

    At that point, I am left with a reductio ad absurdum. And since I know I am not absurd, I have to conclude that the premise was false.

    Ah, but I am absurd. At least I try to be often. Because I can get way too serious and I find absurdism to be a welcome release valve thing.

    You might one day wish to listen to the commentary track for the Buffy episode The Body–during that track, Joss reveals that he has always considered himself to be both an atheist and an absurdist.

    But please don’t reject the Spinoza thing out of hand just because I admitted to absurdism. I might be deeply silly and incorrigibly flippant, but that’s only because The Doctor is my hero. Just because I choose to not be serious, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I can’t also turn out to be correct.


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  108. Well, I am glad to hear that you have read “The Mind’s I.” It has always surprised me that it is less well known than Hofstatder’s “Goedel, Escher, Bach” (please excuse me for being too lazy to type umlauts tonight.)

    I read “The Mind’s I” at a very impressionable age, and have spent the intervening years wrestling with its implications. It would not be unfair to say that it is the book that has most influenced me, that has most disturbed me, that has, in the end, most shaped my view of things.

    I think you make a basic mistake when you say “What it tells me [is] that everyone — whatever their stated philosophical position — agrees with you in acting as though they are real. Which tells me that, when push comes to shove, that’s what they believe.”

    I believe that I am real, of course. It is that belief that I spent so much time reconciling with the material view.

    But I am willing to consider the idea that I am, while real, not what I intuitively believe myself to be. In other words, I reject your reductio ad absurdam. I think it is a flawed proof- no, I think it would be charitable to call it a flawed proof. I don’t think that it is even meaningful to apply the techniques of mathematical proof to this subject.

    In the end I don’t see why I cannot find agency (such as it is,) in a system. If I think myself a process, a system, as opposed to an entity, I don’t have to dispense with agency. I do have to dispense with some intuition, but I’m used to that.

  109. I also have to say that something has been bothering me a bit. Matt Wedel said: “I’m having a hard time thinking of something a scientist would be less likely to say.” in response to something I said.

    I think he is wrong, and not just incidentally wrong, but fundamentally wrong. What is science? It is, simply, an attempt to explain what we can measure.

  110. But what kind of scientist would deny that there are physical phenomena that we cannot measure yet? You said that if it can’t be measured, it’s not real. I disagree. Fundamentally.

  111. I said “can be measured.” I suppose you could take that in a number of ways, but the simplest way you can take it (and thus what I meant) is to understand it as what _can_ be measured, in theory.

    At any rate you said “I’m having a hard time thinking of something a scientist would be less likely to say.” in response to a statement that expressed, succinctly, what a lot of scientists think, and what a lot of scientists say.

    I am curious though- I imagine you must be able to point out a few phenomenon that can’t be measured that scientists think important.

  112. Already done, in the original comment.

  113. Okay, a few more examples. Nobody could measure radio waves until someone invented the radio antenna. We couldn’t measure the spectra of stars until someone invented the kit to do it. Neutrino detectors. Coronagraphs. The wobble of stars induced by their exoplanets. The point is that there are loads of phenomena we couldn’t measure until we got the technology to detect them. Some of these were theorized to exist before they were first found, and some we stumbled on with little in the way of theory to lead us prior to their detection (dark matter and dark energy, to name the two biggest examples). So either we have discovered every measurable phenomenon in the universe, or there are things that we can’t measure yet that are nevertheless real. I can’t tell you what they are; if I could, I’d be discovering them myself.

  114. Matt and Tagore: FWIW, I will try to reiterate what I said before: I would not say that simply because something can’t be measured, that means it isn’t real.

    However, all of the “things that can’t (yet) be measured” are on pretty shaky ground, scientifically speaking. Often, if we can’t measure a thing, it’s hard to say that, that thing is truly scientific.

    Matt, in your example, you point out that some of those things that once could not be measured were theorized to exist before they could be measured. And, if we had never measured them, they’d probably still have that only-a-theory status.

    That’s what I’m trying to say: I disagree with Tagore that only that which can be measured can be said to be real. However, it is the case that, that which cannot be measured is always on very shaky ground scientifically speaking. Since the only way we can verify things in science is by measuring (where observation can count as a form of measurement) how else could it be?

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  115. But Matt, these are all things that can be measured, now. We are thus free to make inferences about the nature of things from our measurements of them.

    It’s possible, I suppose, that we might find some force that influences human behavior that is not accounted for in modern physics. Hell, I’d like to think we will find something like the traditional “soul”- I’d like to think I have one. But it seems very unlikely that we will at this point. We don’t fully understand the forces at work in the world, but we have a pretty good accounting of them, and it doesn’t leave much room for soul, or for agency apart from process.

    Here’s the problem: if you are allowed to posit any undetected force you want there is no point to science at all. Perhaps there is an undetected force that fabricated dinosaur bones and earth strata, and set the carbon clock of the molecules involved. Maybe the Earth really is only a few thousand years old. I mean- it’s all possible, right? It can’t be ruled out. It’s possible that we are zoo animals watched by aliens of a much higher order who find our pitiful lives entertaining- that would explain a lot, actually, though I’d hate to think that I am involuntarily an intergalactic Kim Kardashian. My ass is not as fat as hers, at least.

    We know a lot, now, about how changes in the brain affect (and likely effect, for the grammarians out there) human agency. How can you reconcile that with the concept of agency that you and our gracious host seem to argue for? And further- how can you argue that this agency will survive the death of the brain, when it doesn’t seem to be able to survive even minor brain damage?

  116. Tagore, I would argue that the evidence for a “soul” that you seek is so ubiquitous that you don’t see it, any more than a fish sees water. Every thought we have, every choice we make, the very fact that we’re able to have this conversation and it be about something rather than empty symbol manipulation, is not merely a fragment of evidence for a soul but a demonstration of it so flagrant that I simply can’t understand how anyone can be unable to see it.

    Regarding the effects of brain damage: I hesitate to put too much store in analogy, but I can imagine that a brain is what we think with, just as a car is what we drive with. When a car is damaged, I can’t drive it properly. But it was never the car that was driving, it was me (and I may well be able to drive again if I obtain another car).

  117. Tagore: Why do you keep bringing up “soul”? Why do you keep focusing on something that’s unscientific that we, therefore by definition, have no good way to measure? “Soul” is poorly defined even in the first place. As a consequence of which arguing about whether or not we have souls is bound to be a circular and ultimately pointless debate where you and Mike could argue indefinitely and never reach any kind of agreement or consensus.

    See, that’s what’s so cool about science. Two scientists with opposed scientific views can argue and debate and eventually they can reach a resolution. It doesn’t always work out that one is definitely correct and the other is definitely incorrect, but at least there’s some sort of a resolution.

    By sharp contrast this whole “do we have souls” thing could go on and on and on and never get you anywhere.

    That’s why I don’t generally get into it much. When people make specific religious claims then sometimes I enter the fray, particularly when those claims involve specific moments in history that can be proved or disproved or when those religious claims could have direct, measurable, negative (from my own personal perspective) on the wider world. Examples include, but are not limited too: burning people at the stake as witches, mutilating female genitalia, requiring a person to stay on life support in a vegetative state even when all medical experts and family members feel it’s time to disconnect the equipment, attempting to change the law to remove separation of church and state (U.S.)

    In any of those sorts of situations, I might find myself arguing against their religious justification.

    But if someone wants to believe in an immortal soul and isn’t trying to use that as a justification for why it’s totally ok that there’s war and painful, agonizing death in the world, then I don’t seem much use in arguing.

    The “soul” as typically defined is a concept that can neither be proved or disproved. Therefore it’s unscientific. Therefore, the debate over it can go on for ever, and indeed already has.

    But, Tagore, you’re not going to convice Mike. And he’s not going to convince you. So what’s the point?
    —————————-
    Me, I kind of define “soul” as “consciousness”. And consciousness is neat and all, but I struggle to see how it can survive death. Although if we get Spinoza-eqsue again, then we could argue that all the inanimate things have a sort of “consciousness” too. By that reasoning, then we could say that dead-stuff-that-was-once a person retains some sort of consciousness. But that still doesn’t get us anywhere. Because clearly whatever “consciousness” non-living things may have, it doesn’t seem to be the same as what living humans have. I’ve never had a decent conversation with a bowl or a fork or anything.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  118. Well, Isaac, i am not setting out to convince Mike. I don’t think I can, and I’m not sure I would be doing him a favor if I did convince him. I _am_ trying to make convincing arguments- as long as I do that I don’t care if they actually convince people.

    One of the reasons for this is that I don’t think religion is necessarily a bad thing, even if I think it not “true.” I am not the sort of atheist Hitchens or Dawkins is, or was. You can list the crimes committed by people in the name of religion, and the religious can list the crimes of Stalin, who followed an explicitly atheist doctrine.

    If you want to talk about arguments that go in circles, that’s a great example: “Religion causes crimes against humanity.” “No, atheism causes crimes against humanity.” In the end, I tend to think that humanity causes crimes against humanity- how we can avoid that is perhaps the most important argument there is, but it’s not one that can be simply resolved, either by saying “Establish religion universally’ or by saying “Abolish religion.”

    I argue because that is how I am made. My step-father (with whom I had a very bad relationship) told me, when I was eight or so, “You really ought to be a lawyer when you grow up.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it as a compliment.

    Instead I became a programmer. Finally, I thought, I can make arguments and then show them to be true (and in a way, I do think of programs as arguments.) Then I learned a bit about the theory of computation and realized that, in general, I couldn’t. There is no firm ground to stand upon.

    I keep coming back to the soul because it is the bit of theology I care most about. I am old enough that a lot of the people I loved most have died. This summer I watched the person I loved most (my mother) die. I held her hand, and I looked into her eyes, and I tried to comfort her. I hope I was some comfort to her, but I’m not sure I was. I don’t want to go into detail, but it was pretty horrible.

    Once she had died a lot of things happened. The very first thing that happened was that someone showed up to destroy the drugs.That’s pretty normal (though I thought it wasteful- they destroyed even drugs that were still shrink-wrapped.) After that the funeral people showed up to take her body away. There were a lot of people in and out of the house- it was a chaotic scene. But they asked me if I wanted a moment with her body, after it had been laid out with her favorite clothes on the body bag, and I said yes- I’m not sure why- but I did want a moment with her body.

    Once I was alone with her body- well, it was a very strange thing. This was my mother’s body, but it was not, clearly not, my mother. I kissed her on the forehead, as a goodbye, but it was like kissing marble. I was saying goodbye to her body, but not to her. I had already said goodbye to her, at the moment she died.

    This is why religion is so concerned with the soul, I think. Watching someone you love go from being animated to inert is… something that cannot really be properly described. It’s something we forgot for a while, with the advent of hospital care, but something that we are rediscovering now that hospice care is common. Historically, people were there when people died.

    I’m not all that concerned with Christianity- I’m just not a Christian. But I do care about a question that is inextricably bound up with religion. What was my mother? What was the difference between her when she was alive, and when she had died? What am I? What will I be when I die? Will I be at all?

    You’re right when you say that this an argument that will not be resolved easily. That is the problem with philosophy (and close to a definition of philosophy.)

    Back in the day (and by that, I mean the day of Anaximander) math, and science, and philosophy were one, and there was no way to come to conclusions. Gradually, people discovered two methods for resolving arguments- mathematical proof, and science. What is left of philosophy is what we have not managed to subject to proof and what we have not managed to subject to science.

    It should be the aim of philosophy, I think, to do away with philosophy (shades of late Wittgenstein.) But this is not an easy thing.

  119. Do away with philosophy–That’s an interesting, and not necessarily bad, idea. But do please be careful. If you talk about that too loosely, many folks will think they agree with you. Instead, they’ll misunderstand and decide that the proper approach is to destroy and prevent the asking of any questions that cannot be answered scientifically.

    I think that’d be a horrendously bad idea. It would cause needless pain and strife. But more importantly it wouldn’t actually work. (For me, that’s more important because I’m a Pragmatist.)

    I’m sorry that, that happened. For whatever it’s worth, I think it’s good that you chose to take a moment to say goodbye after she was already gone. Of course I could give you a psychological or sociological explanation as to why it’s useful/important for you to be there and say goodbye. But my explanation wouldn’t really have any value than the more religious-y ones do.

    People live. And people die. And, when possible, people should be there for one another when they die. it is good when someone doesn’t have to die alone.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  120. I gotta say that one of the commenters saying that “fundamentalism” is an “american creation”. Made me laugh my butt off. That’s like saying that greed or desire for power were “created” by some group of people at some point. Fundamentalism in waning and waxing form about anything is a trait that comes out to varying degrees across all of human history and influence, in every theater from religion to politics to ethnicity to whether to live in caves or trees or any other thought/belief human minds touch on.

  121. Well — you are right that fundamentalism in some form is always around. But the earlier commenter is quite right that what we currently think of as fundamentalist Christianity is a relatively recent affair that originated in America. Go back a hundred years and you won’t find it. At least, not in anything resembling its present form.

  122. American fundamentalism really is a new thing, even if other things are called fundamentalism. There is such a thing as Islamic fundamentalism, for instance. But it has nothing to do with Christian fundamentalism.

    American fundamentalists are proposing a new theology, and a particular one at that.

  123. “It is certainly the case that the intuition that organisms could not have come about without design — common among religious people — is incorrect.”

    ## Is it not possible that the universe is created and designed to be such that it does not require one to be a theist, but is “safe for atheism”, though in fact being created by God ? Jesus was not unmistakably God – He was so completely human, that He could be crucified. Maybe the universe is a sign of God’s reality only if one has faith. That would still allow it to be accessible to the sciences.

    (I’m not a scientist, unfortunately – my degree was in theology.)

    The best book on Fundamentalism I know of is that by the late James Barr. He analyses Protestant Evangelical Fundamentalism, but a lot of what he says is applicable to Catholic Biblical or theological fundamentalism, or to other kinds. There is a lot more to the Protestant Evangelical version – which is his model for other kinds than “taking the Bible literally”; that is not the issue. The issue is that the Bible should be read in such a way that it can be understood as free from all error of every kind. I think Barr’s book shows that the Bible resists being treated in that way. What is depressing is that for many atheists, the Fundamentalist way of reading the Bible is the only one they will bother with – if they were previously Fundamentalist Evangelicals, this is not surprising, as Fundamentalism carries on constant warfare with non-Fundamentalist Christian ideas.

    Fundamentalism does not stop there. Because the Bible is so central to Fundamentalist self-understanding, the “true Christian” is the Christian who agrees that the Bible is totally error-free. Christians who don’t believe it is, don’t count as “true Christians”. Fundamentalism reshapes the Church, & Christian belief. It does not think theologically, but textually. So it is powerless to refute Dispensationalism (for example) – because one side’s texts can always be matched by the other’s.

    As for Fundamentalism being an “American creation” – it took shape as a distinct movement in the early 20th century, although many of its typical ideas can eassily be traced back further, into the Biblical material. It came together in the US, for reasons explicable within US Church history – but it did not come together out of nothing in 1900-1925 or so. Some of it is clearly derived from Calvinism. Some roots go back into the history of early Protestant England. From one POV, Fundamentalism is an attempt to realise the Kingdom of God on earth – and that strand in it can be found in the Bible. It’s a flawed attempt, because it tries to reify God – which is perhaps why it has been described as a betrayal of salvation by faith alone.

  124. Well, first off I certainly wouldn’t dispute that American Fundamentalism draws on a number of other traditions. I do think, though, that America’s fundamentalisms have distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from other forms of Christianity.

    I’m aware that Christian have diverse beliefs. I do think that there has to be some kind of line, not matter if it is a bit of fuzzy, that divides Christians from non-Christians to make it worth discussing Christianity at all, let alone discussing the “truth” of Christianity 9which is, of course, what Christian apologetics is about.) Are you a Christian if you don’t believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead? Are you a Christian if you don’t believe that Jesus was in some sense a divine being, rather than someone who was just divinely inspired, as a prophet would be?

    I’m chary of engaging apologists simply because a discussion of apologetics is necessarily a conversation about the truth of beliefs that Christians hold dear in a way that I do not hold atheism dear. But if apologetics are really directed at non-believers I am inclined to think that they need to be able to withstand the same sort of argument that we subject arguments in, say, the sciences to. Faith might be enough for the believer, but non-believers are, by definition, without Faith.

    And this is where I came into the conversation, a long time ago. Dante believed, if I read him right, that Reason, embodied by Virgil, was enough to convince any “reasonable man” that there is a (Christian) God, and enough to allow him to know quite a bit about Him. It was not enough to bring you into His Presence, of course, and thus we have the hand-off from Virgil to Beatrice toward the end of Purgatorio.

    Mike asks why he finds most modern Christians, or at least the things many modern Christians say in relation to Christianity, so stupid when compared to the towering Christian thinkers of the past (I’m not being sarcastic here- I’m an atheist, but I certainly respect Thomas Aquinas, and Dante, and a great number of other writers and thinkers whose thought and writing was very Christian.)

    And what I offer as a (partial) answer is that the Aquinian style is not as effective as it once was. I’m not claiming that Reason can convince any “reasonable man” of the falsity of Christian doctrine, but I am saying that it has far less power to convince him of its truth than it once did. I think that is one reason that many modern forms of Christianity (like American fundamentalism) place more emphasis on Beatrice than on Virgil. That you no longer get set on fire for reasoning in a way that doesn’t support Christian beliefs might have something to do with this, but that’s another thing…

    I might have been a bit more provocative than was wise when I initially offered this thesis (I’ll admit that I do sometimes enjoy poking people in their more sensitive spots just to see what it elicits- it is, perhaps, a character trait I should not be entirely proud of) but I think it has some explanatory power, particularly when combined with some other things I would love to go into, but won’t, because this comment is already far too long.

  125. Interesting stuff, Tagore. I think your analysis is probably not too far wrong. I go quite a long way with Dante: I certainly think Christianity is rational (or, if you prefer, compatible with rationality), and I certainly agree that rational reasoning alone never made a Christian of anyone. For some people it probably plays almost no part; for others, including myself and C. S. Lewis, it plays a very big part, but your mention of the Virgil-to-Beatrice handover sounds exactly right to me, and is one more reminder that I really, really must read The Divine Comedy. (It will have to be a prose translation, though. I can’t read poetry. My eyes slide right off it.)

    Unfortunately, while I think your argument is sound so far as it goes, it doesn’t really go far into explaining why so much of contemporary “Christian” culture is aggressively anti-rational, deliberately setting science up as its enemy, rejecting the insight of experts in every field, and making all sorts of crazy pronouncements in fields that have nothing to do with Christianity itself. That’s what depresses, or at least disappoints me. (Of course it also taints me by association, which is probably in practice the strongest reason why it makes me sad.)

    That said, I’m also not sure where Chesterton fits into your Virgil/Beatrice taxonomy. He’s certainly capable of constructing a solid argument, but he doesn’t generally seem to be very bothered about doing so: his books remind me more of dances than processions, and he gives the impression of cracking a sequence of jokes that lead almost accidentally to a profound insight. Maybe he was Virgil’s and Beatrice’s offspring :-)

  126. Sorry for having taken so long to get back tol you. I actualy started to respond a few nights ago, but WordPress is acting up and it swallowed what I was wrinting whole.

    I don’t have a complete answer for you- it’s a complicated world, and if I can identify a few historical trends that seem to form a pattern I am going to go with them, right or wrong. People like patterns. I like patterns. Maybe the world doesn’t work at all like I think it does, and if some peasant in Lorraine who lived from 1290-1327 had sneezed twice instead of once modern Christianity would be dominated by Spock-like figures who would insist on a completely rational view of God, and deny that Faith had a role in Christianity at all.

    John McCain might have run in 2008 with an unknown professor of logic from Alaska who could do (simple, I imagine) differential equations in her head. He still would have lost, but that would have been a lot more fun… imagine Palin interviewed by Katie Couric and saying “Well, Katie, I’m not sure your question makes sense. The not of the ands is the or of the nots, after all.”

    The fundamentalists would have cheered and run riot in the streets, waving their copies of Church’s book. A few heretics might have waved von Neumann and Morgenstern’s book, but since modern Christianity is fairly inclusive I imagine they wouldn’t have been burnt at the stake or anything. They would have formed the T party. (I don’t usually explain my jokes but this one is so obscure I guess I have to- T is a dialect of scheme.)

    Anyway… I’ll think about the world we have, as opposed to this “extra-sneeze” world I posit, and report back as soon as possible.

  127. Maybe the world doesn’t work at all like I think it does, and if some peasant in Lorraine who lived from 1290-1327 had sneezed twice instead of once modern Christianity would be dominated by Spock-like figures who would insist on a completely rational view of God, and deny that Faith had a role in Christianity at all.

    Ah, now we hit a key issue. I don’t think Christianity could ever have been that. It’s one of the fundamental complexities of Christianity that from its earliest days, and then consistently through every cultural fashion, it’s insisted on both rationality and faith (though of course with different emphases at different times). I suspect that’s part of what make it so difficult to grasp for some people.

  128. “Dante believed, if I read him right, that Reason, embodied by Virgil, was enough to convince any “reasonable man” that there is a (Christian) God, and enough to allow him to know quite a bit about Him.”

    A slight overstatement: take out the word Christian, and the description is accurate. Dante – like St. Thomas, and all other Catholic theologians before and since – knew very well that reason is not enough for man to come faith in God as revealed in Christ – which is why Virgil leaves Dante when they come to the top of Mount Purgatory, and leaves Matilda to introduce him to Beatrice, who takes him through the heavens until she leaves him in the care of St. Bernard in the tenth heaven, the Empyrean, to experience the Vision of God which is the purpose of his journey and the purpose of human life.

    Reason even at its best is woefully insufficient to bring us to Christ – He must be revealed to us by God. No apologetic can do that; reason is a propaedeutic to revelation – no more. Reason can allow us to know that there is a God, Who is in some sense “personal” and has certain attributes (such as ineffability) but it cannot give us God’s “identity”. So we can know a fair amount about God through reason, but it is as nothing compared with what we are given through revelation & through life in Christ. Reason can establish that faith is credible – but it cannot substitute for union with God through faith.

  129. Dante – like St. Thomas, and all other Catholic theologians before and since – knew very well that reason is not enough for man to come faith in God as revealed in Christ.

    Right — hence the revelation of Christ himself. Had reason alone been sufficient, there would have been no need for the incarnation.

    Reason can allow us to know that there is a God, Who is in some sense “personal” and has certain attributes (such as ineffability) but it cannot give us God’s “identity”.

    Very nicely put.

    The way I like to put it, people who become(*) Christians mostly do it in one of two ways. Some people make a leap of faith, often in response to a personal revelation. Others (myself included) have to inch their way out along a bridge of reason. That can take us a long way; but not all the way. A step of faith is still required. But reason has got us to a point where it’s only a step, not a leap.

    (*) I am talking here specifically about people who become Christians during their teen or adult life, not about people who are brought up in Christian households and stick with it.

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