Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Commentary

I have to admit to not liking Islam. It's not that I don't like Muslims (the individuals), and it's not that I have an inherent dislike for their religious claims (although I believe them false). Rather it's that the greater cultural expression of Islam is evil.

That out in the open, here is some commentary on the ongoing debacle over cartoons.

This morning, I heard on NPR that the violent uproar had been orchestrated in part by some Muslim clerics in Denmark after the cartoons showed up in the newspaper late last year. They wrote a letter to the president asking for a meeting to vent. The President declined, probably because he doesn't see himself as the keeper of the media.

As a result of this 'slight', they embarked on a campaign to orchestrate the uprising by circulating the cartoons through the Arab world. In my opinion, they knew full well what the result would be. To top it all off, they included in the distributed cartoons some particularly incendiary ones that were never published.

That would only be an interesting footnote on the whole event if it weren't for the fact that this is common practice among the Muslim world. It's normal for Muslim clerics to speak to audiences of Muslims and lie. They make silly claims such as "Bush orchestrated the 9/11 attacks to justify a war on Islam!". Or they claim the Holocaust never happened, or any other lie they want to tell about the West, or about America. I've heard of them claiming that certain explosions (either bomb-making accidents, or suicide bomb attacks) were really Israeli or US missile attacks.

All this is part of a campaign to bolster support for Jihad against the West.

Then I see this:
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the West’s publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons was an Israeli conspiracy motivated by anger over the victory of the militant Hamas group in the Palestinian elections last month. “The West condemns any denial of the Jewish holocaust, but it permits the insult of Islamic sanctities,” Khamenei said.

On that same NPR bit this morning I was struck with the irony of the fact that one of the cartoons was described as a depiction of Muhammed with a bomb wrapped in his turban. Presummably, they are offended that Muhammed is being equated with terrorism. To express their anger against this unjustified characterisation of Islam, they proceeded to kill, bomb and burn Danish citizens and buildings....Hmmm.

A religion of peace? Clearly not.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

God’s Intrinsic Probability

This is borrowed:

Whenever considering the various arguments for theism, it is worth asking the preliminary question How likely is it that God exists? Our preconceptions on this issue are likely to colour our assessment of whatever evidence for (or against) God’s existence we encounter. It is therefore worthwhile to attempt to establish the intrinsic probability of theism, the a priori probability that God exists.

If we begin with the thought that God’s existence is highly unlikely, then it is going to take very strong evidence to persuade us that he does indeed exist. Whatever positive evidence for God’s existence we encounter, if we begin with a presumption of atheism then we will expect that evidence to be flawed. We may, as a result, view purported theistic proofs with greater suspicion than we otherwise would.

If, on the other hand, we begin our inquiry with an intellectual openness to God’s existence, then we may find persuasive arguments that others would not. Inconclusive evidence may be deemed acceptable on the ground that it confirms a suspicion that we already had. The issue of the intrinsic probability of theism will thus have an effect on the way that we approach any argument on either side of the debate concerning God’s existence. It is rational to take the probability of God’s existence into account when considering such arguments.

The Improbability of God
It is tempting to think that God’s existence is about as unlikely as anything could be. God, if he exists, is infinite in his attributes; in power, knowledge, and love—in his whole being—God is unlimited. Ockham’s razor, then, which tells us that where either of two explanations will do we should always prefer the simpler explanation, recommends that wherever possible we should avoid postulating the existence of God to explain evidence. If there are two explanations of a set of evidence, one invoking God and the other not invoking God, then the explanation that doesn’t invoke God will always be the more economical of the two; it is more economical to postulate any number of finite beings than it is to postulate one infinite being. The hypothesis that God exists, then, seems to be as intrinsically unlikely as it is possible for a hypothesis to be. Prejudice against theism, it seems, is justified.

It might even be thought that the existence of God goes beyond mere improbability, that it is impossible. Certain of the tradition doctrines concerning God’s nature appear to be self-contradictory, while others appear to contradict each other; several of the arguments for atheism seek to exploit this appearance. If this appearance is to be trusted, then God cannot exist--logical contradictions are not just unlikely to be true; they cannot be true--and we can be confidant that any purported theistic proof contains an error even before we examine it.

The Probability of God
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the alleged contradictions in God’s nature can be resolved. If this is correct, and God’s existence is possible, then the theist can offer a counter-argument to case for the improbability of God’s existence set out above. This counter-argument is offered by Richard Swinburne in The Existence of God.

Swinburne observes that it is simpler to postulate an unlimited force than a limited force. If one postulates a limited force then one is postulating two things, the force and whatever constrains it. If one postulates an unlimited force, then one is only postulating one thing, the force; there is, by definition, nothing that constrains an infinite force.

For this reason, scientists constructing theories will, unless there is good reason not to, prefer to use zeroes or infinities in those theories. The speed of light, for instance, was assumed to be infinite until experimental data disconfirmed this. Scientists recognise that an infinite force is intrinsically more probable than any great but finite force.

This methodology, Swinburne suggests, can be generalised; an infinite being, he urges, is the most probable kind of being. Ockham’s razor, if he is correct, far from implying that God’s existence is less likely than any other explanatory hypothesis, implies that it is more likely than any other explanatory hypothesis; the intrinsic probability of theism is relatively high.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Thoughts on Dagoods' Objections

(A contribution from Paul regarding Dagoods' responses to Jeff's last post)

Dagoods,

Your arguments are good — right at the top of the philosophical game in some instances — and it's refreshing to find an atheist who actually understands Christianity to some meaningful extent. Unfortunately, I do not see any logical defeaters to Christianity here, only some speculation over metaphysical dilemmas that are beyond our resources to resolve with certainty, possible reasons to reject some commonly held characterizations of God's nature, and a whole lot of grudge against the kind of God you think Scripture is portraying. In fact, it looks very much to me like you are assuming certain principles in order to make your case — principles that would be unjustified were atheism true. As Cornelius Van Til would put it, you must first climb onto God's lap in order slap Him in the face. Let me just throw out a few observations on this discussion.

God and time

This is a very interesting topic and I have many ideas as to how God, time, creation, and immutability might be compatible notions. Some might even be compelling to you, but I will predict that you would still find some grounds for dispute. The problem is that we, being creatures of time and material, have absolutely no means for understanding what the possibilities are for being outside, before, or changed by a creation. And you have yourself admitted that a beginning of time leaves you at a logical impasse as an atheist. It is surely a problem, but I at least find that the concept of something "eternal" "outside" of the creation (however that plays out) does more philosophical work for me than the belief that there is nothing at all.

Any scenarios I might suggest would be merely theoretical, or "true" only in an anthropomorphic sense, and the best I could hope to accomplish is to offer a plausible scenario that would be subjectively compelling to you according to the "language" of logic as you understand it (grounding logic is yet another problem for atheism).

God and morality

I see you either unable to make the distinction between objective and subjective morality or you do not believe that it is ultimately meaningful to do so. Let me first simplify it for you as the difference between personally defined morality (inside the box of the cosmos), and morality that is sourced prior to and outside of the box (imposed upon us and/or woven into the fabric of our "selves"). You may not believe in the objective option, or think the word "objective" to be the best term, but the theoretical distinctions should make sense and seem to suggest some rather profound metaphysical alternatives.

Perhaps you believe that an "objective" morality that is ultimately sourced in a deity is really "subjective" after all — God being the subject. So be it, but that is certainly different in a meaningful way from you and I being the final authority on ethical matters. It also is a meaningless point in regard to your relationship and obligations to that external Subject.

Even if one were to affirm that morality was nothing more than what God decreed, what of that? Is it a "bad" thing to be so? Will you say that God has decreed something evil on any given occasion, as though you had some higher moral law at your disposal by which to judge Him? Indeed, you are judging good and evil at every turn, and the majority of your points seem to be dependent upon the idea that God is not actually good and just. But from where are you pulling your moral standards? You must first presuppose objective morality in order for your arguments to have force, otherwise your complaints simply boil down to, "I don't like your God. He doesn't do things like I think they should be done."

Even so, is it not reasonable to think that what God decrees has some meaningful relationship to His own nature and character? Perhaps you may technically see this as taking the divine imperative horn of Euthyphro's dilemma, but it also seems to make sense of the defense that morality comes from God's essence and not simply from a random series of commands serving no purpose. And even if they were random commands, what am I to say against God? Even if I found that I did not like Him, what victory would there be in defying Him?

Nature of evil

Again, debating over a meaningful definition of "evil" is a fascinating (maybe even useful) exercise, but differences in definitions do not negate the existence of it or its philosophical implications. Perhaps you'd like to argue that it really does not exist in any way beyond personal distaste, which seems warranted by your atheism, but that would seem to undermine your recurrent theme of the injustice of God.

The "genocide" of the Amorites (well, some of them anyway) seems to be the main fly in your ointment. But you load the dice in the very word you use to describe it (like "suicide" for the atonement). I could just as well say that the deaths of every human in history constitutes "murder" on God's part. Why isolate this to one small population of people who happened to depart in a programmed fashion by the chosen agency of the Hebrews as opposed to floods, hail of fire, plagues, and cancer? It seems to me that this is small potatoes in the grand scheme of life and death on this earthly existence.

Might I suggest that your context for understanding these things is as a gnat on a marquis, and you have loaded your judgment down with a hundred presuppositions? You are presuming something about the Amorites, something like innocence. You are presuming that dead children are more tragic than dead adults in a world where life itself is often called "tragic." You are assuming that a work of art that is conscious somehow makes the creator subject to the rights and feelings of that creation. You are assuming that you have enough data about humanity, history, morality, and the plans of God to make a right judgment about this or anything. You are assuming that your own distaste for the elimination of a small group of pagans is even meaningful in the context of a worldview that has only an arguable foothold for the concept of morality.

It may be difficult to determine the broad scope and boundaries of good and evil, but this is why we would necessarily be dependent on God, who must ground it, to tell us Himself. Interestingly, Scripture portrays a God who is very keen for us to trust him and to assure us of his good intentions. I thought on this simply as a young Christian ("of course God is good, why would I doubt that"), but with more life experience and further study of the Scripture I realized there was cause for question, just as you did. This makes it all the more meaningful to find those assurances and evidences of the great lengths He has gone to on my behalf in Christ. He has won my trust and respect, not just commanded it; and He assures me that all things will work for the good of those who love Him, even though He reserves the full knowledge of that plan for Himself alone at this time.

Dagoods, I have good reason to believe the Scriptures on many accounts not covered here. My belief in them is not based on my ability to squeeze every action of God into a category of my own likening. Indeed, the very concept of a God who stands over me in authority is not to my "liking." But if I believe in this God, then I must take what He has revealed as the only possible authority and rescue from what must otherwise be epistemological chaos.

Monday, January 23, 2006

A Logical Attack Answered

Dagwood has a closet full of objections to Christianity (and Theism in general). Since the comment section of his blog has gotten too cumbersome for me I'm responding here. It's going to be hard for me to clearly articulate his challenge here because I hadn't gotten around to getting clarification on his objection seen here.

, if God did change his nature? 1) How would you know? And 2) How could you enforce it not happening? Is the “doctrine of immutability” a greater law than God?Question, Jeff. What could God do that is unjust and why is it unjust?


To be fair, I don't know for sure what he means here and will be guessing as best I can. So Dag, please correct me.

If this is taken as an honest question it deserves an answer. If it's somehow meant to be a challenge then I don't see the logical coherence except in the last sentence. So let me take that one first.

The charge is that the doctrine of immutability is logically incoherent. This could be claimed, also, of God's omnipotence (ie. Can God create a bolder too big for Him to lift?). The simple answer is that God cannot do anything that is logically incoherent. God is logical in His nature — He may be said to be "logic" just as He is "love" — and He does not do anything inconsistent with His nature. Indeed, the very idea of doing something logically incoherent is incoherent. One may say incoherent things (like, "I have a non-existent diamond in my pocket"), but producing instances of them is another matter.

Some examples would be:

  • God cannot kill himself
  • God cannot create a round square
  • God cannot change in essence
  • And on...

Do these limitations themselves negate omnipotence? The answer is "No". This is because the concept of divine omnipotence was never understood to mean that God could do the logically impossible.

The first two in the example above are logically incoherent, but why would the third one be so? That takes explaining. The Christian concept of God is that He is the greatest conceivable being. In fact, this formulation of God is relied upon by Anselm in his Ontological argument. Since God is the greatest conceivable Being, to change His essence would necessarily entail becoming less than perfect. Therefore, it's logically incoherent for God (and only God) to change His essence.

Of course there is a Biblical argument to support the concept of immutability, but non-Christians don't want to hear those arguments.

So on to the question: Can God do anything that is unjust?

My answer will be two-fold. First, the answer must be no. The charge from Dagwood (I think) is that this makes God subject to the laws of justice. To say yes would make God less than Just. This puts us on the horns of a dilemma, it seems (also known as the Euthyphro dilemma). Perhaps some would be content to say that it's OK for God to be subject to the laws of justice. But if so, where did these come from? Did they preceed God? Are they more powerful than God? Clearly this raises some issues that would cease to have God being God (remember the definition of 'greatest conceivable Being'?).

The answer is that this is a false dilemma. In Dagwood's own words: "I have to tell you. Whenever I see claims of dichotomies, all my red flags go up. There are too many variables in life." Seems he doesn't want to take his own advice and consider a tertium quid solution.

I prefer the answer given by Aquinas and C. S. Lewis. God is subject to a moral code (God cannot sin) and He does NOT define righteousness any way He pleases. God's immutable nature is that of righteousness. The moral code that He must follow is an essential part of His nature. Therefore, there is no dilemma. He cannot act contrary to His nature, yet He's not subject to something outside of Himself. Righteousness is God, and God is righteous. The laws that then proceed from Him are not arbitrary, but are consistent with His will and nature. Dilemma solved.

Some would argue from there that this constraint to act according to His moral nature constitutes a limitation that is inconsistent with omnipotence. Augustine answered this charge by arguing that 'evil' has no ontological value in itself. Evil is simply the absence of righteousness. Like a donut hole isn't a thing...it's the absence of donut. A shadow isn't a thing, it's an absence of light. Therefore you cannot say that since humans can sin, we can do something that God can't (that's true) and that we are therefore, in some ways, more powerful than God (our sin is only a weakness or a lacking, never a strength or capability).

Now on to the questions that were asked. Dagwood, if there is a proper challenge embodied by these, let me know and I'll try to address it.

First: If God did change His nature how would we know? Well, we loosely addressed immutability above, as well as the reason it must be so logically. Beyond that we have His revelation in the Bible attesting to it. But if the logically incoherent did happen and God changed His nature, I assume He would reveal it to us in the way that He revealed past points of change. The main covenants (Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic...) were periods in time where God changed the rules by which mankind was to operate and men were notified of this. This would not necessitate a change in His own nature or the overarching moral principles, only a further unfolding of His temporal plans for humanity. The only way that God's intimate laws for mankind would remain static is if His purpose and plans for mankind were fulfilled and fixed at our creation.

Second: How could we enforce it not happening? Obviously mankind doesn't enforce anything in regard to God. I suspect something was meant that escapes me and that I can expect an elaboration soon.

There is an important note to add here in regard to God's justice. Dagwood likes to point out Biblical narratives that demonstrate inconsistency in God's behavior. I am not willing to say that on every point of God's behavior that I can subjectively justify it. This is because God has so much more knowledge than I do that I'm incapable in all cases of understanding.

However, it's possible in many cases. So here is a stab. Moral imperatives are not as low level as "Don't punch anyone in the nose". They are more general such as "Don't harm people". Well, what if someone is trying to punch me in the nose? Am I justified in punching their nose first to stop them? Most of us would agree it's justified in self-defense. Why? Because there are two competing morals. There is the moral cost of him hurting me and the moral cost of me hurting him. Which one is worse? I'd argue that him trying to hurt me without sufficient provocation makes his moral transgression worse and the overall moral cost of me hitting him first, is less than if he succeeds in hurting me.

That may not have been a great example, so I'll give another one. What if I could take $10 from my friend, and with that money I could provide a starving child with enough food to live for a month. Furthermore, let's assume that this child's starvation is such that she needs food within the next hour to survive. I'd steal the money, but the total moral outcome is far better than if I don't steal the money, thereby allowing the girl's death.

Now imagine that I'm the only one that knows about the girl because I have knowledge you don't. All you see is the theft of the $10 from my friend. You would assume that I was an immoral person. What if, unbeknownst to you, my friend owed me $10? This analogy is ideal for the claim of injustice against God. He's working to bring about the absolute best end result for eternity. He knows the future outcome of actions taken today (or not taken today) and does things that would appear to a finite being as being immoral (say commanding the death of all Canaanites). To top it all off, He owns this world and all the life in it (ala the $10).

Which brings me to a point that needs stressing in regard to the charge that God is unjust. Why is it wrong for us to kill? Is it because human life is precious in some sense? Well, yes. But is this human life precious in a way that is outside of God? (creating a bit of the Euthyphro dilemma again). The primary justification for the value of man is that man is God's creation.

Imagine an artist makes a beautiful sculpture. Now imagine 2 acts: Me walking in his house and destroying it; or the artist walking up and destroying it. The first act is immoral, the second act isn't. It's about dominion. Since God holds dominion over all of creation, He has the right to take human life without the charge of murder.

I know that last statement will make Dagwood tremble with anger. But there's no logical contradiction there, at least as I see it.

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

Christians are fond of using the argument from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics to argue the impossibility (or to be exact, the near impossibility) of evolution occurring naturally.

Over and over again we see evolutionists correcting us by saying that the law only applies to closed systems. Earth is not a closed system because we have energy constantly being applied to the system in the form of sunlight. Earth, therefore, is an open system which isn't subjected to the 2nd law.

The problem is that our intuition SCREAMS at us that order doesn't come from chaos, even if you apply energy from an outside source. So are we simply idiots for continuing to argue from the 2nd law? I don't think so. And neither does this mathematician from Texas A&M.

See Here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

An Observation

If you read headlines or listen/watch the news then you've probably heard about California executing its oldest death-row inmate. Why is this newsworthy? Well, I suppose it's nothing more than the fact that he's old and has one foot in the grave already so people see him as the old man in front of them rather than the murdering scum-bag that ordered the murders of 4 people.

Here's the reasoning behind the appeal of his lawyers. He's 76, he's blind, he's nearly deaf, he's confined to a wheelchair and suffers from diabetes. Therefore, putting him to death constitutes 'cruel and unusual' punishment. In fact, they argued that keeping him on death row itself constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Now, can anyone explain to me why putting someone to death in this condition is cruel and unusual when putting a healthy man to death in the same situation isn't? It's natural that we'd feel more sympathy for this man than we would for a 30 year old tattooed, scary-looking gang-banger. The problem is that the appearance of a man isn't a valid basis for legal pronouncements.

Now, it can be really hard to pigeon-hole people. But it strikes me that those who oppose this man's execution either because they oppose the death penalty, or they oppose it in this case, will be largely left-leaning. It's just a common position on the 'left' of the political spectrum to be against the death penalty.
It's also a 'left' position to be for the right to die. I mean the physician assisted suicide of those who are terminally ill, depressed, or in great chronic pain.
So it stands to reason that there are a large number of people on the left that both support the right to die (euthenasia) and who oppose this death penalty case precisely because the man was so old and so close to death. (note: he had died and been revived in September)

It seems to me that a consistent liberal would actually have to oppose this man's execution somewhat less than they oppose the execution of a healthy, younger man.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

No Freedom to Choose in Education

Again, borrowed from the Family Research Council.

Lebec, a small town in California, is named for a 19th century pioneer who died in a fight with a grizzly bear. Residents should not be surprised, then, to find themselves in the middle of another bear fight. When the local school board voted to allow a one-month course in Intelligent Design to be taught as an elective, and under the heading of philosophy, some dissatisfied parents called in Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and went to court. They are trying to block any teaching of Intelligent Design under the auspices of a public school. They oppose it even when students freely choose it. They oppose it even when it's labeled philosophy, not science. "It's scary," says teacher Sharon Lemburg, "I just want to teach. I'm not out for big publicity." It's interesting, isn't it, that liberals defended John T. Scopes in the name of academic freedom and his right to teach Darwin, but are willing to sue to silence Sharon Lemburg?

I find this particularly interested in light of the recent court decision in Dover, PA. In that case the issue was said to be that it was attached to a science class. If it had been attached to a humanities class, or philosophy class it wouldn't have been a problem (or so the detractors claimed). They also said that it wouldn't have been a problem if it had been an opt-in thing...So much for honesty.