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Monday, August 25, 2003

Is Peter's Question still valid?

Peter exhorts us to be ready to provide a defense of our hope to all who ask. But it may be that it is possible to do that. Surely when ordinary people ask us to provide arguments or evidence for our Christian faith we should expect to be able to provide it. There are many reports of many people who were pursuaded into the Kingdomm through arguments and evidence.

But if we come to someone who has puished the main questions back to the most fundamental issues in epistemology, we may have reached the point where the question "Why do you believe in Jesus?" can in principle be answered. If part of the buisness of providing a complete answer to the reason of our beliefs requires overcoming sceptical issues about divine language or knowledge of moral truths or similar things, there may be no answer in principle. This does not mean that we cannot talk about non-truth relevant issues like the value of faith for life and dealing with stress or deal with objections to faith which try to show that we have sufficient reason and/or evidence that it must be false or that the hueristics we rely on to support it are not reliable. But in being required to give a truth indicative reason rather than just support the coherence of Christianity with itself or the data of science or its pragmatic value, we may not in principle be able to have anything to say.

This wouldn't show that we did not have a reason to believe, just that we cannot give a reason. It would not mean that we are being unreasonable in our belief in Christ or that the only motives we have are practical ones, or that our belief must be merely hypothetical. The fact that we cannot express our reasoning in terms of an formal argument that must needs find universal acceptance in all its assumptions and premises, does not mean that we do not have an argument in the sense of having a process that rationally guides our thought to the conclusion that Christianity is true. It does not mean we are fideists.

This puts us in an awkward situation with respect to the biblical demand to be ready with a defence. Sometimes given the strict context of the question a defense is in principle impossible. But in these situations we should not feel guilty for failure nor should we see it as indicating that there must be an error on Peter's part. Biblically we must understand Peter in the context of the rest of the New Testament. By the example of Christ, we understand that not every request for a miracle is worthy of being honored. And from Paul's discussion in I Corinthians 1 - 4, we see that some time the answer for the philosopher's request runs completely afoul of what was actually demanded. It would not be suprising if what may be primarily focused on moral conditions of reception was indicated by the formal features of the argument. Larry Crabb spoke of the sin of demandingness and this seems to fit the aggravated insistence on a solution before considering further that characterizes worldly oppositon to the gospel.

The current state of our best thought has put us in a situation where this situation comes up more and more frequently and which the demand for an answer is being used as a gate keeping device to the respect of society. We may be in a position where pushing apologetics is not the most appropriate attitude to dealing with a secular culture.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

The Wildebeest Retracts His Scepticism

Looking back at some of the things I said under the grip of skepticism, I feel obligated to make some recantations in a certain sense. I have been greatly helped by reading J. White’s book, “Experience and God”.

There is no denying the truth and authority of the critical point of view within its own perspective. Pure critical thought has shown that, with respect to terms and claims, we cannot form our beliefs into propositions of sufficient clarity to make explicit what we mean or whether our religious, moral, and historical claims shown fundamentally to be true or consistent. From the point of view of supporting our beliefs by either deductive reasons or inductive reasons, there are no arguments or evidence for the truth of theism or Christianity or for any particular interpretation of Scripture available. It is not reasonable to be a Christian according to the paradigm of reason that has been successful in giving modern society its great accomplishments in science, markets, and democratic process. Furthermore, the progress in reductionism made in the sciences of the mind, of nature, and utilitarian ethics are far more achieved than the credit Christians often give them indicates.

For a while I thought this meant that the only two choices available to me were either sheer fideism or giving up on the faith altogether. The first was unacceptable as an irresponsible and sheer arbitrary act without motivation, the second meant being consistent and giving up not only a belief system that was very important to me in the past but also giving up everything that gave human life any importance. The lifestyle envisioned by such a move seemed as intuitively unrespectable as someone having the aim of being stretched out on a table and wired into Nozick’s pleasure inducing machine.

From the point of view of critical thought, there are no alternatives significantly different from either of these. But we are not merely formal and critical thinkers. We still have the “natural dispositions to think in certain ways that we’ve had since childhood and which our education endeavors to weed out of us. For example, we experience ourselves as subsistent beings over time, in spite of constantly being told that we must only be pastiches of momentary images correlated with constantly alternating physical particles and states. The interesting thing is that we see ourselves as existents when and while we see our bodies as physical processes, etc. And this is not only peculiar to our experience of ourselves but permeates all of our experience. We see a message to us when and while we see a twisted tube of colored neon. We see a ball game when and while we see pixels on a television screen. And these experiences are putatively realistic and are associated with a belief in the reality of the object that we cannot but form. I will call this “natural reasoning” as distinct from “critical reasoning” which I will use to refer to the form of reasoning I discussed in my opening remarks.

It is really natural reasoning which accounts for the plausibility of the arguments and evidences of Christianity. The moves that make up most of what passes for traditional apologetics requires the presumption of the reliability of natural reasoning (which is itself a presumption of natural reasoning). Further natural reasoning is a feature of the species of humanity. It seems plausible to me that much of the Bible’s appeal to reason for the support of Theism and the true faith is just this appeal to natural reasoning. Also, the Bible’s objection to “philosophy” as vain for moral and religious purposes seems aptly applied to the fruits of critical reasoning. I don’t think the text is crimped at all by the distinction between natural and critical reasoning. Finally, although not fecund in the same way that critical reasoning is, natural reasoning has a fecundity of its own, contributing to health, well-being, and prosperity of humans.

From the point of view of critical thought, accepting claims on the basis of accepting natural reasoning would just be another instance of fideism, so that natural reasoning is no reasoning. But we ought to resist this resistance. Critical reasoning for all its great strengths in many fields is especially weak in its characterization of natural reason. Critical reason is often getting the phenomenology wrong. A classic example is the reply the ordinary language theorists made to the positivists in the 1950’s: “In you epistemology, do you mean by knowledge what the person on the street means by knowledge?” But this failure is widely spread through out all the applications of reason. The only way to get the phenomena of natural reasoning right is to return to it and examine it in the way that we find it. And when we do we discover this natural and putatively rational and realistic feature, rich in description, which seems to be a point of convergence across cultures. There is a given quality to our lives that critical reasoning is constantly neglecting and making mistakes about, a feature about which we cannot choose not to have but can only choose to repress. From the point of view of critical reasoning, relying on natural reasoning involves a choice and a risk, but it is not a leap in that we are not making things up willy nilly but trusting in a possible resource given to us over which we have no say.

According to that source there is a God an infinite personal being and we are finite persons and we are invited to put a personal trust in and have a loving relationship with that great being. This aspect makes sense out of why God would restrict us to coming to Himself on the basis of the risky bridge of natural reason rather than critical reason, a reason which does not turn his transcendence and otherness. It is not that God appeals to us by appealing to something that is absolutely beyond rational thought as some fideists would hold. God is evident in every drop of water and every grain of sand – to natural reasoning. But critical reasoning is an inappropriate organ for the purposes a personal God would have for making Himself known to us. Natural reason presupposes agenthood, critical reason does not require it. It may be true that it is not clear what interst an infinite transcendant God could have in his created “ants”, but there is this natural and personalistic reason we seem hardwired to have – a most apt medium to be made to include if such a God were interested in us. The risk detected by critical reasoning is just the risk that is inevitable and appropriate to personal relationships.

So we do have rational motivations to hold that Christianity is true based on natural reason. It is still to be shown that critical reason does not indicate that Christianity is false but in this area Christians and even some non-Christians who work with critical reasoning have been superlatively successful in refuting proposed objections to Christian friendly beliefs. Since there are rational motivations to be a Christian, this means I have to retract in some sense the claims that “there is no evidence at all for Christianity” and “apologetics is bunk”. While these claims are true from the point of view of critical reasoning alone, they are not absolutely true. But it does mean that apologetics is hard because it involves inviting the non-believer to open his or her mind to its own natural reasoning as the starting point of thought and to resist the inclination to reject out of turn anything that is not critically justified. These are things that the non-believer may just be flat unwilling to do. But if we are refused, we must resist the pressure to accommodate our view by insisting that our beliefs are nothing but what is based on an arbitrary trust in an alien authority and continue to affirm and proclaim the rationality of our commitment to Christ based on God’s gift of right reason in our own nature. The Christian, in saying this, is not opposing herself or himself to critical reason and wants to discourage such. Rather, the Christian is seeing both as part of a spectrum of possible types of reason, used for different purposes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Sorry! I lost my computer access for awhile.

I will be getting back into blogging today. I apologize to my wee regular visitors for not being around. I will try to have something thoughtful and worthwhile soon.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Why be a postmillenialialist?

My standard line on this is that all versions of historical premillenialism are less likely to be viable readings of Biblical eschatology than non-premillenial views and that among such views, the best versions of postmillenialism (postmil) are not significantly different from the best versions of amillenialism (amil) so that there is no real choice to be made between them. As a result, the best view of eschatology is the classical anti-chiliastic stance that the church has adopted since Augustine.

Given that, the torturous debates between amils and postmils in the last two centuries have been puzzling and interesting. I think the sources of explanation for them are primarily cultural (Scottish formulations versus Dutch formulations) and historical (the sudden shift of evangelicalism from being a dominant position in worldwide Victorian culture in the 19th century to its dramatic marginalization in the twentieth century along with that same culture in societies formerly possesing both). However, most of the questions properly try to difine and distinguish the two views and recommend one over the other on the basis of biblical exegesis. I want to suggest that, given that some antichiliast position seems to be likely to be most correct, it may not be necessary to go to such detailed exegetical work to decide between postmil and amil.

The reason is that there is an important similarity between the problem of deciding between postmil and amil and the problem of evil. Both positions agree that the figure of the Millenium points to the particular work of the Trinity in heaven and earth appropriate for the period between the two comings of Christ, but differ in that amils think that period is to be characterized by the church in trial and suffering and the opposing world in ascension, and postmils think the time will be characterized by the church prospering and the opposing world restrained. Neither side necessarily sees the decline or progress as exclusively happening and both allow intermittency between the two. Yet is seems that both sides agree that it is hard to see how an apparently prosperous enemy can be reconciled with a supposedly prosperous kingdom. And this parallels the problem of evil namely how can the existence of a good God be reconciled with the presence of evil. In particular, the amil/postmil tension seems to especially resemble the philosophical problem of the amount of evil, namely that even if the problem of evil per se was not a real problem, the fact that there is so much evil when there could have been less is irreconcilable with a the existence of a good God. In the case of the millenial question, it seems like the amils are the ones saying that the greatness of persecution and secularization is too much to accept a notion of the kingdom that is generally prosperous and the postmils are saying that since the kingdom is prosperous the amount of success of secularization and persecution must be less than it appears.

My response is that if we find the responses to the problem of the quantity of evil in apologetics to be adequate we should also think that the same sort of response is adequate in defence of an essentially prosperous kingdom of God. The basic reply in apologetics is to deny that we are in any position to assess how much evil would be illegitimate since there is a natural knowledge gap betweem us and God. Consequently nothing compels us to believe that their is too much evil. The same point could also be made in eschatology -- we are in no position to evaluate whether or not their is too much secularization et. al. to deny the existence of a prospering kingdom so there is no reason not to be a postmillenialist. This even applies given that we find both kinds of prophecies in the Bible -- both of prosperity and persecution. Future badness can be foretold and yet this does not necessarily count as evidence against a triumphant kingdom. The solution is clear: if one is a theist and one is an anti-chiliast, then one should be a postmillenialist.

Two further points: One, I think this answer serves an an excellent defense for being a Warfieldian in eschatology. Warfield's solution famously was to argue that Rev 20 specificly refers to events in the heavenly realm rather than on earth so that specificly the millenium has nothing to do with the church's experience in time, while he yet maintained the traditional Old Princeton optimism about the church based on other passages of Scripture.

Two, I think the disputes between postmils and amils may (but not must) indicate a certain hypocracy in that we offer a rationale to our non-Christian interlocutors who confront us with the problem of evil that we ourselves do not really find compelling in eschatology. We need to make up our minds.

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

A "Demon" even God cannot excorcise.

God cannot do anything that is logically impossible; like draw a square circle, or make something red all over and green all over, or create a divisible metaphysical unit. And it could be that something cannot be a finite cognizer and have the resources to overcome sceptical cases. For example, it may not be logically possible for a finite mind to be able to assure itself that it is not a brain in a vat or under the spell of Descartes' Demon. Many traditional arguments against theism from rivil metaphysical systems can be understood as versions of sceptical arguments with respect to local topics. For example, that we must reject moral truths or color impressions because they have no place in a world of physical laws, can be seen as a scepticism about moral truths and colors based on having an alternative conception of the world which we cannot be assured is false. But perhaps our inability to assure ourselves under these circumstances is an essential feature of our finiteness as thinkers, so it is quite possible that we can do nothing about it. But since this is an essential feature of the kind of things we are, there is also nothing God can do about it. Intuitively, it seems to me that the only being that could overcome such a lack of assurance is God Himself, andthis would explain why He could not create other such beings.

Let's move our attention from Russell in the dock of heaven to Clifford's ship owber. According to Pro. Clifford, suppose a person owns an ocean liner and wonders if it is still shipshape. However, this shipowner lets the ship go full of passengers without inspecting it and the ship sinks from neglect of maintenence, killing all on board. Clifford's compelling intuition is that the owner is responsible for the deaths of all those people in virtue of failing to do a sufficient investigation of the seaworthiness of the liner, and further, that he would still be responsible even if the ship successfully made the voyage without sinking. From this, Clifford concludes that it is always morally wrong to believe something without sufficient evidence. But does sufficient evidence include being able to answer sceptical questions? It would seem not since imagining the ship owner doing a maintenence check and passing the ship because of it, and then asking "But how do I know the ship is really there?", would undermine the grip of Clifford's case for the sufficient evidence principle; the ship is definitely seaworthy whether or not we are justified in believing in its existence. So sufficient evidence for sending out the ship falls short of dispelling sceptical doubts.

Russell thinks that God ought to be able to provide sufficient evidence that God exists as opposed to agnosticism being true. But ought implies can and we have a reason to think it might be that God cannot meet Russell's request. This is an additional consideration in behalf of (4) in the previous post. Further, we cannot assure ourselves that God has not been doing all He could do to make himself known to beings such as us, as characterized by traditional arguments and evidences. In fact, once we begin to think that the request for defeaters of sceptical doubts is illegitimate because impossible to satisfy and also unnecessary for religious purposes (as in the ship owner's case), we may think that what is availble is not only legitimate but even super-abundant.

Monday, April 28, 2003

What God might have said to Russell

What could God say to Bertrand Russell when He asks him why he should be held guilty for rejecting Him and Russell says "Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!"? Here are some possible answers:

(1) "You didn't look hard enough." Russell assumes that it could ever be reasonable for him to be satisfied at some point to think that he thought adequately about the question and was satisfied that there was not sufficient evidence. But the state of being dilligent in investigation is incompatible with the state of being satisfied that there is not enough evidence. One cannot consistently hold to both as necessary states of mind for the justified agnostic.

(2) "You're begging the question." Russell insists on evidence understood as having to meet a particular picture of evidence, something that is either deduced from self-evident first premmises or which has a substantially high degree of support based on ultimately self-evident assumptions that establish prior probability. Since theistic arguments and Christian evidences fail both these tests, they do not support a reasonable belief in God. However, the world could be such a place that humans have reliable belief forming processes other than the one stipulated by Russell (mysticism say) and beliefs formed by these are warranted. If God exists and he is good, then he created us with such mechanisms that lead to a reliable belief in Him without arduous thought only capapble by a few. So Russell's view that no beliefs other than the one's he supports are properly formed already assumes that God doesn't exist.

(3) "You are too parsimonious." Russell unnecessarily assumes that all such proper evidence must by public, that is, it must be capable of being potentially sharable discursively. But suppose that there is some some evidence that is like a private synthetic a priori belief that provides basic compelingness to the idea that God exists. This differs from (2) in that such evidence would satisfy Russell's other requirements by being a self-evident truth but not self-evident to all except those who seek it. Russell should have been seeking the gift of basic self-evident belief and not rule it out a priori. (For more on this, see Dr. Peter Van Inwagon's essay here.)

(4) "You were too rash to conclude that the paucity of evidence was illegitimate." Russell assumes that an all powerful and all good God could not fail to provide evidence that fails Russell's standards. But this is not clear. If God had provided such evidence as that alone which Russell admits, human responsibility in freely coming to Him would be crushed. God wants people to exert there moral energies in seeking Him out, not undermine saint-making be preventing the search at the outset. So a good God might have good reasons for not providing Russell with the evidence he insists on.

These are all answers to Russell that I have seen in some form or another in print. Next post, I want to consider another I have not yet seen but which I think is as necessary to add.

Friday, April 25, 2003

Apologetics without Epistemology?

Consider Plato's Meno. In it, Socrates argues that since it is conceivable that we might be the sort of creatures that receive a kind of pre-aquaintance with the eternal forms before birth and need only to recall them now, we ought not be discouraged by what may be a false dilemma between either already knowing the truth or not being able to know the truth, which in either case would mean that all our philosophical reflection would be worthless. This classic example illustrates Iris Murdock's point that metaphysics can be a guide to ethics, including the ethics of belief policies. Given western thought's inability to recover from Descartes' Demon hypothesis, it doesn't seem that metaphysics may ever lead to justified beliefs about the way the world is. But even if that is true it can beused to help make important decisions, including religious decisions as for example in Pascal's Wager and SK's "Religion B".

The same might be said about the various ways Christian Dogmatic theology traditionally relies on speculative metaphysics to present a coherent, unfalsified statement of biblically mandated beliefs. It may be impossible to establish whether a Christian system of a naturalist system is really rationally to be preferred. This, however, may not necessarily prevent such considerations from supporting a solid decision about where to put one's faith. One important strength about this is that it shows that doctrine really plays an important role in the Christian life after all even when it cannot be verified. It still plays a necessary role in motivating the Christian Faith in practice.

So maybe the best thing to say, however ironic, is that apologetics doesn't require epistemology. I can defend my faith without having to prove that it's true. This can be a viable strength in a sophisticated academic culture were epistemology is seen to be a bankrupt project, to be replaced by either metaphysics or politics. (e.g. Buddy: "How do you justify your beliefs? Dusty: "Sorry, but I don't do epistemology.")

LAME-O, the Ludicrously Attenuated 'Magination Engine Optator!

Okay, here is my universal absolutely free RPG idea that I know everyone else already thought of. There are basicly two rules:

Rule 1: Avoid dice rolls!

All players creatively conceive and communicate their characters and their specific actions in the game narrative and the Game Master conceives and communicates the world setting and specific situations in enough detail such that the resolution of player actions is clearly indicated by the logic of the story.

Rule 2: Roll the dice!

If there is no clear outcome even after detailed exposition, this means that the opposing forces in the story are fairly evenly matched. If so, use the following die mechanic. Every time it comes down to a dice role, the player rolls 3D6 and 1D20 in one throw. If the result on the D20 is greater than the result from the 3D6, the players action was a success. ("20" is a critical success, which means the GM determines some further good result for the player at the GM's discretion. "1" is a critical failure, which means the GM determines some further adverse consequence for the player.) In opposed action rolls, the comparative quality of success is determined by the differences between the D20 result and the 3D6 result of each contestant.

You can find some free real RPGs right here.
After a month long hiatus, which did me a lot of good, my friends and I are back to slogging through HackMaster's "Little Keep on the Border Lands" suppliment, which we are doing by email. After spending last semester settling into the Keep and connecting with the adventure hook (which also involved a touch of fevered teen romance, several flesh eating parakeets, and the burnt corpse of sow left on the table with a knife burried into its chest (aka dinner), they are now exploring the temple of the demon and have come face to face with the Player's Handbook. Further details as events warrant. D'&u

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Well, I was looking at all my friends and noticed they had their own blogs and I figured, "Hey! I want some too!" So welcome to my blog.