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Roger Penrose On The Grand Design

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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 speaks. Because of his stature and relationship to Hawking, he 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 when, 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.”

A Plea for Civil Disagreement

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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 for good measure, “bastards” several more times. It recalled Rush Limbaugh recently calling Democrats “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 calling.

Our Inescapable Pluralism

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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. In his debate with Dinesh D’Souza, John Loftus makes these inter-religious and intra-religious disagreements the gravamen of his case against Christianity, 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 virtue. 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.

Common Sense on Ultimate Explanations

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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.

Regarding Haiti: An Imperative

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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.

The Captain of My Soul

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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.

Forever Separated Lovers

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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…

A Story of Natural Evil and the Suffering of Animals

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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 these arguments 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.

We’re In This Together

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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, 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.

Reactions to Religulous

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I confess, I’ve never been a fan of Bill Maher’s shtick. To me, smugness is just about the most annoying human personality trait. It’s why I have a hard time enjoying any movie featuring Kevin Spacey … unless he’s the villain, which suits me just fine. Maher has long had the temerity to insert himself into forums where serious political and cultural issues are at stake. Kudos for that. But, no matter how sincere or thoughtful the arguments put forth there, Maher seems to think they can be dismissed with a witticism and his famous smirk, dripping with self-satisfaction. Some think these retorts incisive. They’ve always struck me as evasions. Rarely does Maher bother to engage the logic of an argument, which is fine as a comedian, but it hardly merits his apparent self-appraisal as a beacon of reason. It appears from the trailers that Maher has taken a similar tack in his new film, Religulous. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, so I’ll refrain from commenting until I do (Read My Film Autopsy now that I’ve seen it). In the meantime, the reviews and responses popping up around the Web are plenty interesting. Here’s a sampling…