Web Clippings & Commentary or The Existence of God
With all the hand-wringing about whether Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design changes anything — whether "philosophy is dead" and whether M-theory promises to explain the appearance of our universe in strictly physical terms — Sir Roger Penrose, because of his stature and relationship to Hawking, is one of the most interesting commentators, and he is none too impressed. On the September 25th broadcast of Unbelievable?, Alister McGrath is carrying on in his exceedingly unctuous way, describing M-theory as "slightly tentative", merely "a staging post along the long road of science..." With wonderful British politeness, Penrose interrupts: "I think it's actually stronger than that. What is referred to as M-theory isn't even a theory. It's a collection of ideas, hopes, aspirations. ... I think the book is a bit misleading in that respect. It gives you the impression that here is this new theory which is going to explain everything. It's nothing of the sort. ... I think the book suffers rather more strongly than many. It's not an uncommon thing in popular descriptions of science to latch on to some idea, particularly things to do with string theory, which have absolutely no support from observation. They're just nice ideas that people have tried to explore." On the whole, Penrose is less sanguine about the prospects for a theory of everything in the forseeable future. And so far, a number of Hawking's colleagues seem to agree that The Grand Design is much ado about nothing, even apart from its philosophical infelicities. In his review at The Financial Times, Penrose shares a further concern about the subjectivist turn in Hawking's thinking, illustrated by a, shall we say, atypical conversation in which Hawking proposed that black holes and "white holes" are synonomous. The story underscores the extent to which a layperson like myself is at the mercy of their expertise. I am far from competent to evaluate the merits of such esoteric theoretical physics, to do the math and check the sums. And so, it is incumbent upon the specialists to be forthright about the speculative degree of a given theory. In this case, it looks likely that even with the endorsement of the esteemed Hawking, M-theory, in its current state, is unlikely to put to rest either the teleological argument (in terms of fine-tuning) or the cosmological argument (in its Kalām formulation).
We interrupt this broadcast for a rare excursion into contemporary politics, but only to make a broader plea. Last night, here in the U.S.A., the Democratic controlled House of Representatives passed a very controversial health care reform bill. Apropos of our last article, the debate on the floor was intense, the differences irreconcilable. For the minority, John Boehner deplored the bill, characterizing it as striking at the heart of the American Dream. For the majority, Nancy Pelosi beamed that it was a final step toward ensuring the American promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". As bitter as the debate has been, it was to be expected that the conservatives who opposed the bill would be angry and frustrated. Sure enough, this morning I overheard radio talk show host Mike Gallagher mid-tirade, calling the Democrats "filthy", "vile", "bastards", "vermin", and "bastards" several more times for good measure. It recalled Rush Limbaugh's recent ascription of Democrats as "cockroaches". These despicable comments do not represent the best of conservative commentary, and I am very aware that such rhetoric is as bad and worse on the other side. What is ironic is that such voices bemoan the demise of the American republic even as they undermine the civil discourse that is vital to it. It is perfectly appropriate to offer withering critique of ideas and actions, but these ad hominems are themselves worthy of severe reproach. Many of the conservatives who are angry and frustrated this morning are Christians, and to you I make a special plea. May we exemplify Jesus' exhortation to "love our [ideological] enemies, to treat them as our friends". May we treat them as we would wish to be treated. May we speak what we consider the truth in love. May we chasten each other when incivility speaks. May we be exemplars of civil discourse. This is our mandate.
Nathan Jacobson » Making the Most of Our Disagreements
The great variety of contradictory religious views is for many reason enough to conclude that there is no truth to be had in such matters, that no one religion is at all likely to be closest to the truth. For example, in his debate with Dinesh D'Souza, John Loftus makes the gravamen of his case against the Christian God these inter-religious and intra-religious disagreements, arguing that in effect they cancel each other out in virtue of the mutually exclusive nature of their claims.1 He does not see, apparently, that by such reasoning, the ageless debate between naturalists and theists is also cancelled, each position nullified. Indeed, every point of view falls prey to such a criterion. When we look within naturalism, we also find denominations and sects, a cacophony of diverse and contradictory positions on fundamental questions. It turns out, the problem of pluralism is an equal opportunity employer. Worldviews are like personalities. Each one is unique. Though there are types of personalities, just as there are broad worldview categories, none is identical. Whatever our worldview, that view must countenance the fact that many others think it mistaken. This is the problem of pluralism. The implication of this reality, however, need not be the defeat of any particular set of beliefs. Rather, the proper response is epistemological. It begs modesty, a profound intellectual humility about our take on reality. And second, it should serve as a call to personal responsibility for our beliefs, and therefore to the epistemic virtues, for there is no consensus on ultimate questions that we can simply adopt by proxy.
A Clarification in Response to Luke Muehlhauser's "Who Designed the Designer?"
Luke, the wunderkind over at Common Sense Atheism, continues to be a tremendously salutary voice in the online conversation about God. Recently, Luke set out to kill a sacred cow, "one of atheism's most popular and resilient retorts", namely: "Who designed the designer?". This, he argues, simply is not a defeater to theistic arguments. I should add, what he offers with one hand, he takes with the other. "The problem with offering 'God did it' as an explanation is that such an explanation has low plausibility, is not testable, has poor consistency with background knowledge, comes from a tradition (supernaturalism) with extreme explanatory failure, lacks simplicity, offers no predictive novelty, and has poor explanatory scope." But returning to the more common objection, Luke points out 1) that we accept unexplained explanations in science, and 2) that if every explanation must be explained to count as an explanation, we end in an infinite regress and nothing is ever explained. It is the nature of the case that some explanations must be ultimate explanations. Both of Luke's points are well taken, and echo the responses offered by William Lane Craig and other theists to this common rejoinder. However, throughout, Luke characterizes the supposed conclusions to the natural theologian's premises as simply: "God did it". Luke undoubtedly knows that this is an oversimplification of such arguments when they are carefully articulated, that much like postulates in physics, their conclusions are of the form: some entity x exists with property p. We'll give it the name y. I do not mean to nitpick, and I understand the use of shorthand, but this distinction is critical in evaluating the appropriateness of a given explanation, the very subject matter of the post. My attempt at a constructive response follows.
Isaiah 58:6-12, The Bible, New International Version (Biblica: 1984).
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? ... If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. » Give here or here.
Nathan Jacobson » Reflections on Invictus and Freedom
Central to the plot of Clint Eastwood's Invictus is William Ernest Henley's short poem of the same name. Though the role of the poem suffers some historical revisionism in the film, its role in the life of Nelson Mandela is worth consideration. The film recounts the remarkable story of Mandela's efforts at national reconciliation through his embrace of the South African rugby team, which at the time remained a symbol of Apartheid's ethnic segregation. In 1996, when I returned for the first time to South Africa, my childhood home, some old friends shared with me how meaningful it was when Mandela appeared at Ellis Park donning the Springbok green and gold. I'm gratified that this remarkable story of reconciliation has made it to the screen, especially while Morgan Freeman is still with us. He was born to play Mandela. During Mandela's long internment on Robben Island, Henley's poem adorned a wall of his cell, a constant reminder that though his freedom had been taken from him, he remained "the captain of his soul". The words of this poem, and their significance to Mandela, underscore a central point of contention in the debate about human free will. It seems to me that one problem with some arguments for compatibilism, the idea that determinism and human responsibility are compatible, is the conflating of freedom and free will. Mandela's story is a powerful reminder that there is freedom beyond freedom. That is, it matters whether we are captains or merely observers of our souls.
A while back Bradley Monton invited his friend and colleague, Nicole Hassoun, to post an incipient sketch of an argument against the existence or goodness of the Christian God. The basic thrust of her concern is as follows: "Perhaps I have the story wrong, ... but it seems to me that several things are true of love. First, if I love someone, I cannot believe that that person deserves eternal suffering. ... Second, when someone I love is hurt, that hurts me. I could not be perfectly happy if someone I loved was suffering for eternity. I cannot even conceive of such a thing. But then it seems there is a problem. For, I could be saved while someone I love is not saved. Then I could be perfectly happy in heaven while a person I love is burning in hell. But if I love someone, I cannot even think this is possible. So I should not, if I love, believe in this kind of Christianity. It could not be right unless my love would disappear at the gates of heaven (or some such) and why, I wonder, would that be? Wouldn´t it be better if heaven had my love in it? Wouldn’t I be happier in love?" My own cursory, and incipient, response follows...
Nathan Jacobson & Dace Starkweather
In more recent philosophical expressions of the Problem of Evil, the argument is carefully articulated to ensure that the evil under consideration is unquestionably gratuitous. That is, while there is suffering for which the theist can posit some possibly redemptive or soul-making purpose, there is also suffering for which it is nigh impossible to imagine any greater good being served. Specifically, attention has turned to natural evil, and to the suffering of animals in particular. For example, William Rowe's widely discussed argument imagines a fawn, alone in the woods, engulfed by a raging forest fire, suffering for days before dying. How could a good and powerful God, if he existed, allow this kind of suffering, which is immeasurable every day? On the other hand, when I watch tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra attempting to cross the Mara River as they finish their annual migration across the Serengeti, many of them violently ripped to pieces in the attempt by basks of writhing crocodiles, it is not obvious to me that this militates against the existence of God.1 I am awed and quickened by the spectacle. Though I naturally root for the antelope, I see tragic beauty in this contest for survival, red in tooth and claw. I'm not altogether sure that a world of harmless bunnies, tribbles and parakeets... a world without riptides, sandstorms, cliffs and fires, would better bespeak a great and beneficent creator. Indeed, I wonder whether a world whose magnificence is due in part to its being as wild and untamed as ours is not itself a justification for the peril and pain entailed therein. But, when I say that I am not sure, that is the truth. I am by no means unsympathetic to the suffering of animals. My heart is rent when I watch PETA's documentaries exposing our oftentimes callous and cruel treatment of animals bred for human consumption. It is egregious to kick a dog, to string up a cat. Furthermore, we have the biblical vision of heaven which portrays a time and place when the lion lies down with the lamb, implying perhaps that the current, ravenous state of nature is not the way it's supposed to be. Considering the abundance of animal suffering, it has always struck me as a bit unfortunate that the examples offered by Rowe, Tooley, and others in thesearguments are usually abstract, when they needn't be.2 So, as I continue to reflect on what we should infer from a natural world that is as violent as it is breathtakingly beautiful, I offer the following contribution. It is a riveting account from the journal of a close friend, Dace Starkweather, who experienced the very real, fiery devastation of Pike National Forest3, and bore witness to the woodland creatures and free range cattle that suffered there. I don't think anyone has ever questioned whether Rowe's example is paralleled in the real world, but this vivid, real-life account makes the question of apparently pointless natural evil all the more poignant.
An increasingly popular rhetorical meme in debates about God, it seems, is the idea that the theist is really on the same trajectory as the atheist. After all, the theist has also rejected every god, save one. It seems that it was Stephen Henry Roberts who revived this charge: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." Richard Dawkins echoes: "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has believed in. Some of us just go one god further." Or, in Christopher Hitchens' words: "Everyone in this room is an atheist. Everyone can name a god in which they do not believe." Interestingly, the charge dates back to at least AD 155, when devotees of the Roman pantheon of gods leveled a similar accusation. At the trial of Polycarp, the Martyrdom of Polycarp records that the crowd yelled: "This is the teacher of atheism, the father of the Christians, the enemy of our gods, who teaches so many to turn from the worship of the gods and not to sacrifice."1 Despite its pedigree, and however effective it is rhetorically, this meme doesn't strike me as trenchant in the least. As I see it, the question of God's existence is a fundamentally different sort of question than whether any one of the purported gods is in fact God. Allow me to draw an analogy. I believe that my mother is Margaret. She told me so and she's been around as long as I can remember. Not only do I believe that she is my mother, but also that none of the other countless candidates is. Say that I learn that in fact I was adopted and she has concealed this from me my whole life till now. I would be left without belief in any particular mother. And yet, I wouldn't for a second think that I didn't have any progenitor whatsoever. That is a different kind of conclusion, and I would still have reason to believe that I was birthed, that I didn't spontaneously emerge from, say, a dandelion. Likewise, the rejection of belief in God is not merely one of subtraction from the sum total of gods on offer, but more like choosing one kind of geometry over another from the beginning. Just as the reasons I have for believing that Margaret is my mother comprise a different set than those I have for believing I have some mother, so too are the relevant considerations for whether God is versus who God is.
On a recent broadcast of the Infidel Guy (Sep. 16, 2008), a caller challenged Gary Habermas, the evening's guest, to reconcile the omniscience of God with human free will. Habermas did his best to argue that there is no necessary conflict, that God knows because we freely choose, we do not so choose because God knows. For my part, I think it's a legitimate and difficult objection. I'm not yet persuaded by either Molinist or Openness attempts to reconcile the two, much less compatabilism or the notion that it is solved by God's being outside of time. But what followed is what struck me. Habermas took the opportunity to ask Reggie Finley, the host, whether he, as a naturalist, believed in free will. Reggie paused, then conceded that he was still trying to figure that one out. Good luck, Reggie, because while free will may be problematic for the theist, it is probably a lost cause for the naturalist. For example, in his excellent and lucid work, The Significance of Free Will, Robert Kane manages to find a place for indeterminacy in matter (in quantum theory), but not for agency, the sine qua non of free will in my judgment. My point is not to wade into the deep waters of human freedom. Rather, I'm taking exception to the widespread impression that it is only the theist who must accept mysteries, antinomies, and quandaries. The truth is, all worldviews are beset by unique difficulties and internal conceptual problems. And, we remain perplexed by many mysteries that we share in common. That is to say, we're in this together. With our amazing, but limited human faculties, the world remains puzzling to us all. In the ongoing debate about what is and is not real, it would serve us well to be mindful of the problems with which each worldview must wrestle. To that end, here are some that occur to me for both Christian theism and for Naturalism.
A number of recent books making the case against God have hit the best-seller list, most notably Christopher Hitchens' God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. If you follow the argument closely, you'll notice that the gravamen of the case against God is their judgment that God, and specifically the Christian God, as he is commonly understood, is not good after all. Whatever its status as a logical proof against theism, the argument is existentially forceful because we meet a God in their arguments that is deserving of their unmistakable disdain. The argument against the goodness of God usually advances on three fronts:
- God cannot be good because the world is rife with evil and suffering;
- The God we meet in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, is repugnant to our moral sensibilities; and,
- Those who claim to follow this God are responsible for epic evils like the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the "troubles" in Northern Ireland as well as for more quotidian evils like intolerance, anti-intellectualism, and being bores.
The age old question of the existence of God has made headlines recently with Al Sharpton's debate with Christopher Hitchens and ABC's, Does God Exist? The Nightline Face-off. In the latter, Ray Comfort, a street preacher who is a regular fixture on Santa Monica's 6th Street promenade, and Kirk Cameron, of Growing Pains fame, argued in the affirmative. Brian Sapient and Kelly of the Rational Response Squad argued for the irrationality of belief in God. One could have hoped, considering the import of such a momentous question, that ABC might have sought out philosophers more up to the task, but that probably wouldn't have made for "good TV". Instead, the viewer was treated to a foursome of philosophical lightweights. There were some high points. Despite his malapropism, calling fundamentally philosophical arguments "scientific proof", Ray Comfort's articulation of the complexity of the human body as a part of his argument from design was eloquent enough. And Brian and Kelly delivered a number of zingers that left Ray and Kirk speechless. But mostly, at best, both sides offered sophomoric versions of the arguments that need to be reckoned with when considering the evidence for and against the existence of God. Fortunately, more capable thinkers have addressed this question more profitably. William Lane Craig is well known for arguing for the rationality of belief in God and a number of his debates with worthy opponents can be found online. His debate with Michael Tooley at the University of Colorado is especially worth reading. JP Moreland's and Kai Nielsen's debate, published in the volume, Does God Exist?, is still an excellent read and features commentary from a number of thinkers who add valuable insight. Many other relevant volumes line the shelves at Amazon.com, including Richard Swinburne's, The Existence of God, and George Smith's classic, Atheism: The Case Against God. Online, Wikipedia provides a helpful catalog of the arguments for the Existence of God. Tim Holt makes the argument for the existence of God in summary form at Existence-of-God.com as does All About God, weighing both philosophical and scientific considerations. The Secular Web provides the counterpoint with a roundup of logical arguments for atheism.
Dan Brown's best-selling novel. It is tempting to be dismissive of all the handwringing. Dan Brown's claims are really just a knock-off of parts of the seemingly perpetual parade of novel theories about the life of Christ that make their debut each Christmas and Easter on the covers of Time and Newsweek. One might be surprised that Christians are so easily scandalized by unorthodox claims about the object of their faith when similar claims are such standard fare. And, after all, it's just a novel. On the other hand, in a historically and biblically illiterate culture, Brown's claims do have purchase on the hearts and minds of believers and non-believers alike. To boot, Brown has refused to let his book be dismissed as mere fiction, insisting instead that, "all of the art, architecture, secret rituals, secret societies — all of that is historical fact". Brown's novel wouldn't be the first to leave an indellible imprint on the course of history. So, I, for one, welcome the cottage industry of critical analysis that has accompanied the release of the film. As usual, LeaderU.com is featuring a roundup of essays and interviews including Ron Rhodes' "Crash the Da Vinci Code", Ben Witherington III's "Mary, Mary, Extraordinary", and Sandra Miesel's merciless "Dismantling the Da Vinci Code." Envoy Magazine offers Carl E. Olsen's critique from a Catholic perspective. The New Age Center reprints an article from the New York Times by Bruce Boucher quibbling with Brown's art history, ending with this fabulous quote from Voltaire: "If it's too silly to be said, it can always be sung." There are many more for the Googling. Additionally, Amazon.com is hawking a multitude of books piggy-backing on the success of the Davinci Code. Here are some critical ones.
"Sounds of Religion in a Time of War" is a typically well-considered assessment of the war in Iraq while George Weigel brings the "just war" tradition to bear in "Moral Clarity in a Time of War". LeaderU features a number of articles in "Warview: Iraq, the US, and World Opinion". While one could have hoped for wisdom on war from a secular worldview, B. Stephen Matthies at The Secular Web instead offers a critical review of Christian approaches in "Just War Tradition, Pacificism, and Nonviolence" The pacifist position is well represented at Sojourners Magazine and Pax Christi. See "Just? Unjust?" by George Lopez and "Liberation Without War" by Jack Duvall.
A recent article in Strange Magazine, recounts at length Mark Opsasnick’s investigation into the alleged demon possession that inspired the film, The Exorcist. In spite of the many years passed and the glut of misinformation that has developed, Opsasnick successfully uncovers each of the previously unknown, crucial facts of the case. His tale is suspenseful and tremendously fascinating, and his relentless and careful striving for the facts is a masterpiece of investigative journalism. In the end, with his discoveries in view, Opsasnick disregards the likelihood of an ‘authentic’ demon possession. But for all his apparent even-handedness, it becomes clear that Opsasnick’s hope from the beginning is to debunk "The Exorcist’s" implicit supernaturalism. After many pages of impressively scrupulous and tedious examination of the facts, he rejects the possibility of an authentic demon possession without even pausing to define ‘demon possession’ or how one might determine the authenticity of such an occurrence. In, "Angelology and Biblical Skepticism." Peter Williams has addressed just such skepticism and dismissiveness toward the reality of spirits. Also consider Steve Waterhouse's list of possible ways to distinguish possesions. Even if the events that inspired, "The Exorcist," do invite naturalistic explanation, it would have served Opsasnick well to have been more careful in his final judgement.