Showing posts with label arguments. Show all posts
Showing posts with label arguments. Show all posts

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Cosmological Argument: Doubts, Difficulties and My Thoughts

About three years ago I became a theist because I found the cosmological argument irresistibly compelling at a rational level. I did not become affiliated with any religion straight away, although I became a Christian not too long after. Today I no longer believe the cosmological argument is sound or can be known to be sound. Let me emphasise this point because it has two parts: (1) I do not find any version of the cosmological argument known to me to be rationally compelling and (2) I do not believe that such an argument can be formulated such that the conclusion (that God exists) is known with certainty.

Where that places my Christianity or theism more broadly is unclear to me. Some people contend that it should remain entirely unaffected because I have a personal relationship with God which transcends rationality. However, relationships seem to me to be based on elements of reason and other elements which go beyond reason. This can be illustrated with the usual analogy used for arguing faith as a virtue: if there seems to be evidence that my spouse is cheating on me, I give her the benefit of the doubt because of how much faith I have in her. But what is the basis of this faith? It is the experience of my spouse in the past and from there, the knowledge of her character. It is a faith built on evidence.

Belief in God, I would say, is much more like online dating without the benefit of cameras or telephones. Certainly, over the course of an online friendship, two people would get to know each other and some degree of trust could establish itself. In the back of their mind, however, is always the knowledge that in the past these people have turned out to be fake, always the knowledge that there exist master deceivers online in these forums. So faith is possible but it seems to lack certainty. Is this a problem? Perhaps not. Few things in life are certain. For me, nonetheless, the cosmological argument had given me a scrap of the closest thing to certainty I could have outside of the truths of mathematics and those most likely truths gleaned from the natural world. So for the argument to be unsound is tantamount to having the online dating website put a marker on the beloved's profile marking it as "Doubtfully Genuine." Any semblance of a relationship is viewed with suspicion and as perhaps the cunning ploy of a deceiver.

Let me enumerate the reasons that I do not think that the known cosmological arguments are sound. First of all, I have never been Aristotelian in my metaphysics (I have viewed with much more agreement the views of Locke and on occasion Hume and Kant, though I have no established metaphysics within which I operate) which means that I invariably find the arguments of St Thomas Aquinas to need reformulation, if only linguistic and cosmetic at points. Aristotle's metaphysics suffers from the same problem, in my opinion, which besets his natural philosophy: despite beginning with some observation, the addition of wildly speculative elements and, more importantly, ontologically realising his linguistic constructions renders a metaphysics which seems common sense but lacks critical grappling with real metaphysical problems. Aristotle's defenders continually accuse his critics (at least in my non-professional experience) of rejecting first principles which should be assumed as axiomatic, and yet this label given to common sense principles does not allow for their critical analysis. It is not the job of philosophy to make common sense reputable, but rather to seek for actual truth, and if common sense is misleading or false, then all the worse for common sense.

Secondly, to his first and second ways I say that I am entirely comfortable with the possibility of an "actual infinite," and so deny that there needs to be some first mover or first efficient cause. I can see why a naive view of infinities leads to paradoxes but in my studies of mathematics I have found no logical contradictions when infinity is rigorously defined; this is by no means to say that the conclusions of operating with infinities are common sense. However, un-intuitive should not be taken to mean false lest one makes of one's common sense an idol.

Thirdly, when it comes to arguments from contingency (as Aquinas' third way is), claims are made which are entirely unverified and implicitly deny, again, the possibility of an actual infinite. How does one know what sort of entity produces a contingent event? Clearly we know from experience that contingent events are produced by other contingent events. Why is it not possible for this to have gone on eternally in the past? More importantly, arguments from contingency are liable to the fallacy of composition which asserts that because the members of some whole have a property, then the whole must have it. This is sometimes true (if all the parts of a car are red, then the whole car is red) but it is not necessarily true (carbon atoms do not have the same properties as carbon allotropes like diamonds or graphite, or diamond and graphite would be identical). I see of no way of inferring that the universe is contingent based on its parts, particularly since:

Fourthly, even if a necessary agent was somewhere necessary in a sequence of contingent events, there is no reason to think that this agent is personal. It is quite conceivable that laws of nature are metaphysically necessary and so can produce contingent events. Why is the world the way it is? We explain everything in it by natural laws, so it is plausible that it can be explained as a whole by natural laws (though here I am asserting only possibility and plausibility). It is sometimes objected that natural laws only explain how to go from one state of affairs to another, not how the whole chain started, to which I reply with two points:

Fifthly, that the only natural laws we know are the ones that take one existing state of affairs to another by some means and mechanism, but this does not imply that these are the only natural laws that exist. This is particularly important because when cosmological arguments make claims about the beginning of all time-space and further claim that such an event would be impossible without a personal agent, they are implicitly are claiming knowledge about atemporal causation. What caused the Big Bang, they ask? But such a question requires a different type of causation to the one we are familiar with in day-to-day life because our daily notions of causality are that some event A which precedes B in time can be the cause of B. Yet there is no possible event of this type preceding the beginning of time, and so we must remain entirely agnostic as to what sort of causality is required. If the Big Bang was really the absolute beginning of all of time and space, then when it is said that it had a cause we are importing an entirely foreign notion to the event. When an argument like the Kalam says that everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence, it makes a claim bigger than the one we have experience of: that everything that begins to exist within time has a cause preceding it in time for its existence. So to that premise I simply say: I cannot know.

Sixthly, the rather major point that I am an instrumentalist and so I do not believe that the scientific theory of the Big Bang can be thought to have metaphysical implications. If you want to know more about the point of view known as "scientific anti-realism", have a look at the article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This means that in arguments like the Kalam where the universe is said to have a beginning, that premise must be proved by non-scientific means. If I was convinced of scientific realism, however, or even realism with respect to certain tenets, then I would furthermore believe two final points about quantum mechanics:

Seventhly, that the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics (or in other words, its under-determinism) leads to profound implications for the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) which underlies most if not all cosmological arguments. Where previously it was held to be certain that, if one measured something in a laboratory then it could in principle be explained uniquely by a preceding event, set of events or series of conditions, this need no longer be held. Every known result of quantum mechanics is consistent with the idea that an identical experiment can have different outcomes to which the only explanation is that the different outcomes were all possible. Because of Bell's theorem and its violation, I think a substantial case can be made that this result of quantum mechanics can be known to be metaphysically true.

Eightly, the interpretation of quantum mechanics which I favour as satisfactorily and elegantly explaining the results of physics is the many worlds interpretation. This actually is in dissonance with point seven and yet it still undermines some varieties of cosmological argument (albeit in a different way). This is because it removes the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics so much that it makes every event uncontingent. In technical terminology, all of physical reality is in a superposition of quantum states which make up a wavefunction that never gets collapsed. The classical analogue would be like flipping a coin and both heads and tails came up in different worlds which branch off from each other, equally real, but we experience only one of the two. To those who believe that many-worlds is quantum mumbo jumbo, I refer this article from Sean Carroll. The consequence of the many worlds interpretation is that the sum of all the contingent worlds makes a necessary whole, much like the sum of the two outcomes of the coin toss makes a necessary whole. That falsifies the claim of the argument from contingency.


For those who are still reading I am going to add a final point in support of my claim that the soundness of the cosmological argument is unknowable with certainty by reason and experience that is available to us without extra revelation (which would be in contention anyway). It is, you might say, an argument from pessimistic induction: as our knowledge of science progresses and we learn more about the natural world, what we learn above all is how alien to our common sense it is. This makes evolutionary sense: the minds of human beings were not formed to contemplate quarks or comprehend how energy produces the curvature of space-time.

It is unsurprising that we intuit things that are false, but if we are honest with our findings we must acknowledge that the world is a weirder place than we could previously assume. The more we realise how unlike our daily life the real world is on scales that exceed it (the very small, the very fast, the very big, the very hot, the very cold, etc.) the more we must acknowledge how little we can justify on the basis of what appears obvious. Cosmological arguments are obvious arguments but the cosmos is not obvious. Therefore, to any claim of knowledge furnishes the premises of such arguments I respond "How do you know that?" Do not be surprised if I do not consider "It is obvious" to be an answer.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Why the Problem of Evil Creates a Problem

Undoubtedly the problem of evil is the most viscerally appealing, intuitive and ancient argument against the existence of an omniperfect God. In its oldest form, the argument from the existence of evil seems to have been adequately addressed. It went something like this:

(1) If God exists, evil does not.
(2) But evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

The issue with this form of the argument is that it is too easy to show that the claim made in premise 1 is too strong; any plausible theodicy shows loopholes in the idea that God and evil cannot coexist. They standardly point to some good that could only be attained by allowing some evil, such as free will (part of Augustinian theodicy) or the importance of evil in spiritual growth (Irenaean theodicy). Some evil is a consequence of free will, which is important enough to tolerate that evil. Hence, it cannot be true that the existence of God is disproved by evil, since clearly God has reason to allow some evil.

The more modern and poignant form of the argument from evil is the evidential argument where evil is presented as something which lessens the probability of the existence of God rather than outright makes it impossible. These sorts of probabilistic arguments seem too nebulous to me to consider them seriously, so instead I will refer to the logical problem of evil with a more precise first and second premise: the argument from gratuitous evil.

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

Here, gratuitous evil is defined as evil that is not necessary to achieve some greater good. Explaining evil as required for some good is obviously not going to work here, but it does at least seem like gratuitous evil exists. Natural evils such as disease or natural disasters seem, in at least some proportion, to be gratuitous. Now, I think the theist has a very good counter at this point: just because it seems unclear to us why some particular evil exists does not mean that no such reason exists. We should be sceptical of our capacity to see the reason for evil if only because from out own experience we know that hindsight has shown particular events in our own lives which we evaluated as negative at the time to have redeeming positive qualities. Whoever had a day's sickness when the World Trade Centre went down, for instance, probably was not too pleased to be sick at the time and yet was rather pleased afterwards to know that they avoided a terrorist attack. God, however, has infinite foresight, so can see all the effects of any event and would be able to evaluate whether the good outweighs the bad.

This position is commonly known as sceptical theism and I think it is essentially correct. However, it implicitly contains ramifications which are disastrous for the religious person if not adequately addressed for it says something of the nature of God: God is clearly willing to tolerate evil for the sake of good. That is the implicit assumption of sceptical theism. This means that, in some sense, God is a consequentialist with regards to God's own actions (even if not for anyone else). What if God lies to us, or at least, allows some untruth to be said by some authoritative representative? Perhaps it could be responded that God would have no reason to do so - but sceptical theism has already postulated quite reasonably that God could have reasons which are beyond our comprehension or knowledge for allowing evil, therefore, God could allow such falsehood in divine revelation.

This in turn undermines the reliability of divine revelation as a whole, for the whole of sceptical theism is the statement that the absence of evidence for a reason does not imply evidence for the absence of a reason when it comes to what God allows or not. The philosopher Stephen Law goes further and argues that sceptical theism is a downwards spiral to the pits of scepticism, since all our faculties could be faulty if God had reason to deceive us, and for all we know God does in fact have such a reason. Law claims that full bodied scepticism is the logical end of sceptical theism, and whilst I disagree, it is irrelevant to the weaker claim which is that God's reliability is undermined.

Some theists reject sceptical theism because it leads to such consequences. To reject sceptical theism, however, is to claim that we must know the reasons behind God's actions, which seems patently false in general and more certainly false from a Christian perspective: the theodicy of the book of Job, for instance, seems essentially to assert sceptical theism. The unfathomable will of God, in turn, is cited by St Paul in his epistle to the Romans as the reason that salvation comes only to those whom God has elected. So sceptical theism, from the point of view of Christianity, seems true.

What can the Christian respond? I can only see one way out: faith. Let me be clear, however, by what I mean when using the word. I do not mean to say at this moment that Christians should believe God because they should trust that God could not have reasons to lie to them. That avenue is expressly ruled out by sceptical theism as a priori. What I mean is rather more inductive: based on the relationship to God as a person, Christians should bridge the gap and trust God. This is done every day by humans everywhere; we trust people who we know could be lying because we think we know them well enough to determine that they are not, in actual fact, lying. I believe this position at least safeguards the possibility of Christians considering divine revelation to be trustworthy. Once that is accepted it becomes a self-protecting belief because the Bible makes claims about God to the effect that God cannot lie, which can be interpreted as the claim that God could not have reasons to lie in actual fact.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Loss of Popular Rational Discourse

Every so often, I commit the mistake of scrolling a bit too far down to the comments section on a YouTube video, and since I usually watch videos relating to something religious or anti-religious, the comments are without exception filled with some debate about the existence of God, or whether morality can exist without God, or whether God is good anyway.

Except it is not quite a debate. Debates are generally reasoned discussions of opposing views, and these "YouTube debates" tend not to be reasoned at all, on both sides. There are, of course, exceptions, yet they are a rarity. Mostly the comments form a mudslinging fight.

Why is this the case? Perhaps I am simply in the odd position of having been on both sides, and so am sympathetic to both views, but I think the reason is deeper than that. It seems that both the theists and atheists, on YouTube but also in many other forums and popular level discussions, have lost the ability to debate with reason.

I think part of the reason is a matter of how these opposing religious and irreligious sub-cultures have arisen. Historically speaking, both sides of the issue have had a very intelligent and thorough position, from the likes of St Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics (not forgetting earlier figures, which also abounded), through to modern philosophers of religion on the theist side, and the unforgettable likes of David Hume, John Stuart Mill, among others, on the atheist side. Throughout history, clearly humans have been able to argue reasonably about these matters.

Yet now, the popular level is not steeped in the vast intellectual tradition. The Christians (which I will now refer to instead of plain theists, although the sets of Christian and theist are not identical) seem to talk more like they use faith as an epistemological tool to know the truth of these matters, thus making knowledge an inward thing, and the atheists portray themselves as the bastions of reason, even whilst attacking caricatures, making ad hominems and generally not using reason at all. Statements like "You talk about faith in a god which there is not one logical reason to think exists" abound in the popular atheist discourse, and the problem is, that shows more ignorance of the person who states such an absurd statement than it sheds light on whether or not God exists. Whether some divine being exists or not, logical reasons have been put forth for centuries on either side.

However the two ways of knowing proposed, faith and reason, are never used. The Christians do not use faith to know, because faith is not a way one can get knowledge of any kind. Reason is not used by the atheists, to some degree because the popular atheist is not well versed enough in matters of reason to employ it properly, but also because the Christians never require it of them. One can comfortably proclaim oneself to hold the reasonable position, whatever that position may be, if the argument against it is not reasonable. One can talk about the logic of the atheists' position forever, if the argument against it is "you're going to hell" - which, if such a thing is merely asserted, does not challenge reason but only offends.

I have centred my observations thus far at the popular level, because at an academic level such foolishness is not so rampant. It is of no use, however, to suggest that people do a bit of research before they open their mouths on these issues, because it is impractical. It is my contention that the problem is this: the argument has gone for so long that it is no longer possible to throw together a few premises and come out with a conclusion. In essence, the arguments still are of that sort, but a much grander defence of hitherto unquestioned principles is required nowadays. Whereas in times past rational intuition held a much higher status, now seemingly obvious truisms are questioned, such that philosophy departments are full of people that do not hold common and intuitive beliefs at all.

The popular level is not full of detailed consideration of philosophical puzzle cases, unable or unwilling to think critically of one's own position as well as the opponents'. As I say, the intellectual tradition has gone beyond what most folk can comprehend readily - that is the problem, and it will not suffice to relegate the majority of people to "the ignorant box." If we as a society are going to progress, it is not because academics and intellectuals advance, but because everyone is brought up to some common and higher standing. The problem we face, in my opinion, is of how to equip people with the ability and desire to discern the truth, enter into rational discourse and, were somebody to be convinced of some proposition or set thereof, actually have it change them. The unspoken assumption that anything one does not already believe must either be false or relatively unimportant must also be challenged if the societal Zeitgeist is to be changed to re-involve critical thinking and reasoning.

The previous consideration applies to practically all areas of life, and now I will offer a few comments on the subject of theism and related debates:

To the Christians: it will not do to ignore reason in public, or indeed private, thought. Throughout the Christian era (CE, slightly adapted) we have had some marvellous minds tackle problems. Take an epistle of St Paul, and count how many times he uses the word "therefore" - such a word is a prime indicator that he is using reason to argue his case. We lose such depth to our religion if we ignore the argument and just focus on the conclusion. We believe that circumcision is not necessary - but can we argue why? Throughout Galatians, it is a heck of a lot more sophisticated than "Jesus finished with that kind of stuff." The use of reason in theology, in philosophy and in other areas enriches, it does not destroy.

We also caricature humans if we forget that we are rational animals when we speak of the gospel. It is true that sin is a problem of the heart, and that the working of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to conversion, but if we then go from that and forget to engage the minds of others, we shoot ourselves in the knee and wonder why we cannot walk. As people and not machines, humans need more than just cerebral content - yet neglecting the cerebral content is something done to our own loss.

To the atheists: it is plainly ignorant to merely assert that there is not and has never been a good reason for believing in some divine being. You may not be convinced, but it does not show any intelligence to regard the rational case for such a being as never opened. The burden of proof is certainly on the theists, but that does not mean that theists have never advanced some case. If you are to be defenders of reason, then what is required of you is that you practice what you preach - so you can do your research, figure out what is wrong with our arguments, and then rebuke us in our fallacies or falsehood. Or maybe (God willing) be convinced!

Furthermore, and this case bothers me in particular, it is not true that "one can obviously have ethics without God." I think one can have ethics without God, but it is not obvious, and the sooner one realizes that it is going to take some argumentation, the better. What is the basis of this morality? How can one know what the right course of action is? Is it universal, and what makes others obliged to follow moral precepts? These are all questions that cannot be answered by asserting that atheists have an answer. Like I said, I think atheists do have an answer - but it is not the case merely because I have asserted it. I used to be a utilitarian (which is the only system I can think of which does not require God - Humean ethics, the most common sense one, fails, in my opinion, but that's another discussion), and I can guarantee that some of the answers I had to give to these questions were not in the slightest the most intuitive. It seems to be the case that the truth of these matters, whatever it may be, is a lot more complicated than most believe. This has been known by the intellectual elite for a long time - it is now time for that elitism to be lessened and the doors to be opened to all.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Historical Argument Against the Bible

Before I commence this post, I think it prudent to make clear two crucial things. First, I am a follower of Christ Jesus because I looked into history to try and show that he did not rise from the dead, and found that I was wrong. Secondly, I want to affirm the role that Biblical documents have played in history - from discovering monuments in Siloam, the pool of Bethesda or any other number of matters in history, many of these documents have helped historians better understand the ancient world.

So, having said that, I now want to try and formulate a historical argument against it. There are, I think, at least two ways of doing this: first, pointing out that historically, two things that are described in the Bible could not both have happened, and secondly, that what the Bible says disagrees with what happened in reality.

Both of these are possible, but the latter is more difficult to do in a blog post, and I would say that it is far less convincing, since it is difficult to know things with certainty when they happened so long ago. Without further ado, I want to mention two bits of evidence of the former sort:

  • The differing accounts of the conversation with Pilate.
  • The differing accounts of the apostle Paul's journeys after conversion.
The first one I believe is quite simple, because in three of the four canonical gospels, the synoptic gospels, there is not very much talking, yet in bet. See Mark 15:1-6, for instance, where the only words Jesus says are "You say so." Matthew 27:11-14 records a similar encounter.  Luke 23:1-7 seems to suggest that there is a bit more conversation, since the previous two said quite clearly that Jesus gave no more replies, but when Pilate asks Jesus if he was a Galilean, it appears Jesus may have responded. Perhaps - the text does not say Jesus speaks, but only that Pilate "learned that he was under Herod's jurisdiction."

John's gospel has a bit more of a to-and-fro between Pilate and Jesus, captured in John 18:28-38. Here, Jesus is much more talkative, saying such memorable lines as "my kingdom is not from here," and here he admits more clearly who he is: "You say that I am king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." to which Pilate responds, equally memorably: "What is truth?".

So which one is it? Now, what is interesting is that these are actually two independent sources (because the synoptic gospels are related in some way, but John is distinct) that there really was a sort of sentencing by Pilate, and indeed, there exists at least one extra-biblical document that corroborates this. Historically speaking, this means that this encounter probably occurred in some form - but which? This is not a question with an easy answer, at least not from a historian's point of view.

Next, and for me more crucially, is the missionary movements of Paul and the discrepancies between Acts of the Apostles and Galatians. Here, I struggle to find some story that could magically tie them together, and even if I could, it would probably have to be more complicated than accepting one account or the other. I shall let you, the reader, attempt to figure this out. The relevant passages are Galatians 1:15-22 and Acts 9 (and onwards, but the point can be made just from Acts 9) - check for yourself.

Very simple, the modus ponens into which I have been putting the arguments is this:

1.If the Bible contradicts itself (or contradicts with reality), then it is errant.
2. The Bible does contradict itself.
3. Therefore, it is errant.

I feel pretty unorthodox writing that, but I think the premises are true and the argument is valid, so I cannot do otherwise.

Finally, then I have come to an argument which I think is quite solid. If the Bible contradicts itself, by the way, it follows that at most one of the events could have occurred, so it is also in dis-accord with reality. What can I say to that? One thing to do could be say that one ought not to believe a word of it. Another thing one might do is limit the scope of the Bible to some smaller range of topics, such as "matters relevant to salvation". However, I would want to say something else, improving on the latter option:

The Sacred Scriptures are not quite the same as a history book, or a scientific manual, and it is crucial to the study of the Bible to realize that. So when one author makes a point in one way and another makes a similar point that seems to contradict (such as "where did Paul really go?, "what did Jesus really say?" or any number of other ones). What difference does it make where Paul went, really? The divine truths are equally accessible to us either way, and if Acts gets some of the journey details chronologically out of order, then so be it! [It could be the case that Galatians gets it wrong, but since that is a Pauline epistle, one would then have to infer Paul had gone senile, or was lying.]

To end, I quote the relevant bit of Dei Verbum:

"the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Immoral Argument against the Old Testament

The core question of ethics, "what ought one do?" is one of the foundational questions of philosophy. Christianity seems to get ethics from the Bible, but is it really a good source? If one looks at the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then it may seem very plausible. Yet the earliest gentile Christians realized that it was not quite so simple - they were going to have to contend with the seemingly abhorrent actions committed by Israel, codified into Mosaic Law and commanded by God. Can an argument from the immorality of the Hebrew Bible suffice to reject the Bible as authoritative on matters of morality?

Allow me first to bring up some of this "evidence". From things Israel committed, see Numbers 31
where Moses commands the Israelites (it can be reasonably argued from verse 7 that God was the one who really commanded, but it is possible that the brutality was not God's - in this instance) to destroy the Midianites, and then Moses complains further when the Israelites have not killed every woman. These Midianite women and the men (referred to as boys in the passage) are to be put to death. The virgins, however, are kept as plunder "for themselves".

If the ownership of women seems unlawful to you, then this only complicates matters, as the law of Moses clearly speaks of women as property[1], for instance, in Exodus 22:16-17. Christians can speak of Jesus abolishing this law all they like, but the gospel according to St Matthew is insistent on the fact that Jesus' role was fulfilment, not abolishment - and if the sinless man fulfils it, then the Mosaic law must be the standard of morality to judge sin by. Furthermore, if Christians are adamant that Jesus actions mean we can ignore the law of Moses, why does St Paul refer to it as good and holy? (see: Romans 7:12)

One final piece of evidence: God's own explicit commands. Where better than the genocide of Joshua, commanded in Deuteronomy 7? I take this last instance to be common enough knowledge, and if not, then Deuteronomy is clear enough.

Now comes the logic part. It seems to be the case that these have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, about compassion on loving on another - but they do, for Jesus claims to be the son of the God of Israel and no other. The modus ponens argument I suggest is as follows:

1. To commit or command the actions listed above is immoral. (P implies Q - commanding these actions implies that the commander is immoral)
2. God commands the actions listed above. (P: God does indeed command these actions)
3. Therefore, God is immoral. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, God is immoral)

The logic of this statement is valid, but one may also attack the truth of the premises. Some Christians reject the first premise, saying that it is not in all times, cultures and places immoral to kill others or enslave them. Some say that it may be for most, but not for God, because God can do whatever he likes. Phrased in a more sophisticated manner, God has no moral obligations, as nothing is above God to impose them.

Very well, but that neither seems biblical nor does it seem to bode well in philosophy, either. If God does not, by his very own righteous nature, impose standards on his own actions, then how does he impose standards on ours? Where does this standard come from in the Christian view, if not from God's own essence? Either we propose an authority above God from which morality emanates, thereby constraining God, or we reject this and propose that the standard is, in fact, from within God and then he must have moral obligations; to himself.

But the second premise can also be challenged. Is biblical infallibility a terribly out-dated doctrine that ought to be left aside? It would certainly be helpful to reject it at times like these! Or at least, do we really need to take things so literally, word-for-word true, leaving aside the human element inherent in it?

In fact, I would opt for something along the lines of the latter. There are however, problems with this view, and there exist tensions which I am not wise enough to solve. Succinctly, the most crucial is that the New Testament writers all valued the Old Testament very highly, if not as inerrant. For some more discussion on this topic, see Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away.

[1] It has come to my attention that the Roman Catholic Church actually (quite prudently in my opinion) has the decalogue (10 Commandments) arranged in a different way. These commandments are numbered 10, but there are in fact 13 "you shall not"s, and so it falls upon the translators to combine them to make 10. Catholics combine the "first two" and separate wives from property, avoiding this problem.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Does the Old Testament provide an argument against Christian belief?

Let me take a moment to explain the title - most people do not speak Latin, and even fewer (although I admit, I have not checked the statistics) have taken a class in formal logic. The modus ponens is a form of logical argument which is so good (or old) that it was given a Latin name. It has a brother, the modus tollens, which is basically the reverse.

Modus ponens means "way that affirms by affirming" and it has a formal statement in terms of P and Q (which you can find on the wikipedia page), but it basically says that if some proposition definitely entails another proposition, but that second proposition is false, then the original one is false also. For example:

If I always have a cold during winter, and I do not have a cold, it follows that it is not winter, by modus tollens.

How does this apply to Christianity? A few days ago I wrote a post entitled "Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away", and although I tried to simultaneously point out why it cannot be ignored and why it cannot be taken at face value...some things just seem obvious. I can imagine that with some form of Old Testament authority in mind, one can construct at least three types of modus ponens or modus tollens arguments: 

1) Moral
2) Scientific
3) Historical

Now, all three will need to be examined individually by each Christian (when actually formulated, of course). Anyone who is going to consider the Bible as a source of information about God will have to wonder about the arguments against it at some point if they are to be rational beings. I shan't formulate them now because I want you to think for yourself whether there is anything in the Bible that could disprove its validity. I can think of at least a few contenders.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Why assume the Bible?

In the last entry, I just took the Christian tradition of thinking that the Bible is authoritative for granted. Most people raised Christian probably have a fairly easy time assuming Biblical authority, but I do not. So how do I understand the Bible?

Starting with the Old Testament, we see the ancient Israelites struggling to understand God. From Genesis, where ancient near Eastern myths were altered in light of the theological truths to be explored (monotheistic theology, a perfectly moral God, with omnipotence) it is clear that the Jews (not yet with this name) were having a very hard time coming to grips with how a perfect God could do any of the things that appear so readily, so abundant, but also quite decidedly bad. The beginning (well, Genesis 2-3, since Genesis 1 is about there being only one God, one Creator and all other things being simply created) shifts the blame from divine shoulders to human ones, and at the end, in Genesis 50, Joseph explains how the evils of being almost killed, then sold in to slavery, ultimately resulted in God's plan being fulfilled - "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

On and on we see Israel gaining understanding of the divine. Yes, God does seem to play a large role in this, and a lot of the Old Testament, though not a majority, contains alleged quotations. Mixed in with all the divine revelation, however, is a very human tone, and very human passages. God's word? In part, but not the whole.

"Well, you can say that, but it just means you are becoming judge over Holy Scripture, keeping what you want and disregarding what you do not!", I hear some people exclaiming. This is a mostly baseless claim. If I were a Jew, then it would surely be a very pointed comment, but the Bible is about revealing God, and Christians understand the God was ultimately and with finality revealed in person, in the flesh. We now have the complete revelation without the noise of human revisionism.

The other side of the spectrum might then exclaim "Ah, but who knows whether Jesus actually said these things?", and the answer is simple. We do. Not because of some pragmatic "God would not leave us alone in the dark" argument, but because of the study of history, and how that shows beyond reasonable doubt that the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are quite reliable as historical documents at the very least. We can have great assurance that, for the most part, Jesus of Nazareth did say the things that are collected there, and if you are a Christian, then most likely you can join me in also believing that many of the miracles (though perhaps not all) were, indeed, done by Jesus, God the Son, whilst he walked the Earth.

 I may, at some time, address some popular arguments for Biblical inerrancy, but this at least is clear: as critical historians, we can figure out a lot of what Jesus said. And from there, if one is (or decides to become) a Christian, we can live our lives in light of that.