Friday, January 27, 2006

Naturalism Vs. Theism

For those who happen by, I want to mention an online debate between Richard Carrier and Tom Wanchick. The subject of the debate is "Naturalism vs Theism" with Richard Carrier advancing the naturalist position and Tom Wanchick the theist position. The opening statements were just published, and there will rebuttals, counter-rebuttals and closing statements every couple of weeks.

Richard Carrier has become one of my favorite authors. I referenced him here early in my discussion with Ernie. A collection of his writing can be found on the Secular Web. I highly recommed his material.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What Would It Take

There has obviously been a bit of a hiatus in my discussion with Ernie, as Ernie has apparently taken a bit of time off. What I would like to cover today is not specifically directed to Ernie, but to anyone who "believes". In fact, there are applications to just about anybody, myself included.

The basic idea is to ask the question "What would it take for you to stop believing in Christianity?" What would have to happen? What would you need to learn, discover or observe? I think these are important questions to ask yourself, but they can be scary questions too, I suspect. To answer those questions with anything other than "Nothing" is to admit the possibility that what you believe is wrong, and that is not an easy thing.

I do not remember if I have written about this before, but there is a phrase, an aphorism perhaps, that I developed several years ago now, based on my observations of people. (This was well before my deconversion, but you can perhaps see the seeds of it here.) The phrase was: people would rather be sure than right. Rather than face uncertainty (which may be the right answer when reason and evidence are insufficient), people latch on to explanations that seem to reduce that uncertainty. Now those answers may turn out to be right, or they may be wrong. To me it served as a warning to be skeptical, a warning that there might be things I was "sure" about that were wrong.

To break out of the prison of unjustified certainty, you have to allow yourself to be wrong, to be unsure, to face the possibility that something at or near the center of your life may be unreliable. And some of you reading this will be thinking something like "I will not open myself to that, because that might open me up to deception, and I might lose something that I should keep at all costs." And with that thought, some of you may justify to yourselves the refusal to allow that you might be wrong. You may, perhaps, give lip service to the idea of a critical investigation of your own beliefs, while reserving for yourself a private commitment that nothing will change your mind.

But perhaps some are braver than that.

This is one of those places where my experience in software development provided some interesting input. In "agile" or "lean" software development, one principle is to delay important decisions as long as possible (but no later!) so that at the time the decision is made you have the maximum possible information. Rather than committing to designs made "up-front" when you know very little, you wait until the "last responsible moment".

Why do we commit ourselves to beliefs adopted when we knew less than we know today or might know tomorrow? I am not suggesting that beliefs should be dropped the instant any difficulty appears, because we can misunderstand facts, reason illogically, be deceived, and so on. On the other hand, we must also admit that we may have already misunderstood facts, reasoned illogically, been deceived, and so on. Do you really think that you might be wrong today or tomorrow, but not yesterday?

So, my challenge to you is to identify what it would take to convince you that you are wrong. Are you willing to do that? Not to tell me, just to tell yourself?

And yes, I do still ask myself that question.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Don't Panic

I have been dissatisfied with the original blog template that I chose, mostly because it enforces a fixed width that is too narrow for my tastes. So I switched. I hope you will like this one better. I think I do.

Monday, January 16, 2006

In Memoriam

I learned today, not unexpectedly, that my old friend Larry has died, after a long struggle with cystic fibrosis and its effects.

Larry and I met in 1986, the year I started at Caltech. We both lived in Ruddock House. At Caltech, frosh go through a process called rotation, a process which culminates in being adopted into one of the (then) seven houses, an association that typically lasted through one's entire undergraduate career. Larry was a sophomore, rooming with Mel at the end of Alley Two, and I lived down the hall in Alley Three. Mel was from Green Bay, WI, and had already earned a nickname from Sean: "The Big Cheese" I think. Sean gave everyone nicknames, and following in Mel's footsteps I became "Bucky", after Bucky Badger, Wisconsin's mascot. But now that I think about it, Larry might have escaped a moniker from Sean. How could that have happened? Perhaps I have forgotten it.

I got to know Larry, Mel, Sean and many others through InterVarsity. We spent hours together at LGM's, DPM's, Bible studies, retreats and whatever else. Larry often led worship. As anyone who knows Larry can tell you, one of his greatest loves was playing the guitar. He inspired a number of us to learn, working for those callouses on our fingers. Larry (and Mel) were so tolerant of us as we played the same simple songs over and over again.

Along with Janice and a grad student whose name I cannot quite remember (Elly?), Larry and I attended a nearby Presbyterian Church. That is, it was nearby by the standards of the Los Angelos basin, only a twenty minute drive away. We were adopted, more or less, by a couple of families at the church who picked us up not only for church on Sunday mornings but also for choir practices on Wednesday nights, and often invited us to their homes on Sunday afternoons, as well as a winter retreat with their high school youth group.

As Mel was a year older than Larry, Larry needed a new roommate after Mel graduated, and he asked me to join him in "Lower Fishbowl". Lower Fishbowl was a larger room in one corner of Ruddock House, so named because its windows faced the courtyard near one of the entrances where people could easily look in as they came and went. Being a larger room, it was generally a desired room, and Larry, as the Alley leader (the exact term escapes me) got to pick first. Before school started that year, he arrived a few days early, removed the old loft and constructed a raised floor at the far end of the room. We slept underneath. Some people did not like that style of loft, but with the size of that room, I think it worked out very well, forming two different spaces in the room. It became a center of activity that year for people playing Hearts and Spades, as well as an occasional game of chess or bridge. Larry's bean bag chairs were great for relaxing, and his stereo and music collection were wonderful. That year was easily the high point of my time at Caltech.

Larry and I also shared a major, Applied Physics. I only recall one class together, APh 181, Semiconductor Physics. As an upper 100-level class, there were a mixture of undergrads and grad students. The professor, in the first day of class, said that the grades usually fell into a bimodal curve, with the graduate students forming the top hump, the undergraduates forming the bottom hump, with junior underclassmen (like myself) falling on the lower half of the bottom hump. Larry and I stuck it out together, and I think we both got B's.

I mentioned earlier than Larry had cystic fibrosis. That was something you learned about quickly with Larry, due to the intense fits of coughing he endured. But I do not recall him ever complaining about it. It was a fact of life for him, but he did not allow it to rule his life.

While I have not kept in touch with Larry, I count it an honor to have known him. He leaves behind a wife and two children, a sister and a brother, and (as far as I know) both parents. I am certain he will be missed even while we can be thankful, in a sad sort of way, that his suffering has ended.

We'll miss you, Larry.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The (No So) Terrible Tao's

In order to help clarify where I am coming from, Ernie has made an attempt to describe a set of beliefs that I may or may not hold, and asked for my feedback. Here goes...

1. There are universally valid norms for human ethics, which are necessary and sufficient for both individual happiness and social welfare

Ernie previously brought up the idea of a "universal, transcendent standard of virtue" and I replied that

... there may be some elaboration of "universal, transcendent standard of virtue that I might find reasonable, ..."

What I had in mind here were more along the lines of a small set of abstract guidelines, like the Golden Rule, and I think of them as being very helpful advice rather than a standard against which we will be measured. (The word "norm" implies, to me at least, the idea of a standard that I would not include.)

I would not go so far as to say that these guidelines are sufficient for either individual happiness or social welfare. They may not even be necessary; perhaps there are multiple sets of guidelines that could provide the same or similar benefits. And I would not state happiness and welfare as being absolutely attainable states, but things that can be present more or less, with ethical behavior leading generally to more.

So if I wanted to restate (1), I might say something like

1. There are a few general principles that underlie most ethical behavior, leading to increased individual happiness and social welfare.

2. These norms are, at a practical level, discoverable by the use of reason, observation, and empathy, without requiring any sort of divinity.


3. In particular, religious faith (including belief in god(s) and/or an afterlife) would not appreciably increase my [his] ability to either perceive or observe valid ethical standards.

I think that, roughly speaking, ethical behavior derives in part from appropriate recognition of the uncertainty of our beliefs. Since I find the existence of any kind of god or afterlife highly suspect, I find behavior that depends strongly on the belief in those things to be ethically suspect. From this point of view, religious faith can be a barrier to perceiving or observing valid ethical standards.

Religion can also be a vehicle for promoting them. I came across a quote today that went something like this: "Art is a lie that leads to the truth." Somewhat similarly, I think some beliefs can promote valid ethical standards without being true.

4. Neither does it seem to increase the overall ethicality of religious communities (including Christians), at least according to my [his] standards.

Correct. I recently came across a paper that touches on this, with references to other studies that I haven't read yet.

5. In particular, the Bible is either not reliable or not clear enough to provide a suitably strong ethical foundation for life, and any attempt to follow its teachings in it could well do more harm than good.

There are contained in the Bible some good ideas about morals. But they are not good simply because they are in the Bible. There are also some things that I (now) consider morally wrong, in addition to the various factual and consistency problems. To the degree that the Bible is presented or received as an authoritative representation of truth and particularly of a god's absolute commands, I think trouble will result.

Could a strong ethical position be supported by parts of the Bible? Sure. Could morally wrong actions be supported by parts of the Bible? Yes. So, to say "any attempt to follow its teachings ... could well do more harm than good" would be taking things too far.

Ernie also asked me to clarify what I mean when I say "Christianity". Certainly the word means different things to different people, and can be used in different ways at different times. When I said "... I have found that much of what I would call Christianity ... [has] sustantial deficiencies, and what is left cannot be properly called Christianity" I would include these as important criteria:

1. Monotheistic, but...

2. Jesus is/was God

3. Jesus death and resurrection enable our salvation

4. Bible is revealed or inspired scripture

There may be more, but that is what comes to my mind right now. Obviously some people make stronger statements, particularly about (4), where you will note that I did not say "inerrant", and some people make weaker statements. That is generally what I mean, though.

One last comment. Ernie said at the beginning of his post that

I think part of the confusion is that he isn't clear about whether I'm trying to convince him my views are "true" vs. merely "consistent." Then again, maybe I'm not either. :-)

I agree that such confusion may exist. There was a phase in what eventually became my "deconversion" where I explicitly recognized constistency as a necessary but insufficient characteristic of my beliefs. This probably deserves further exploration, but this post is quite long enough already, and too long delayed, to explore that any further.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

How Now, Tao Cow

In his latest post in our dialog, Ernie gave us an introduction to his views on "The Tao" and how it relates to his views on hell. I am going to quote large blocks and respond.

I believe:

1. There exists a universal, transcendent standard of virtue -- what C.S. Lewis called 'The Tao', and Jews call 'The Law.'

2. All individuals, societies, and religious traditions intrinsically posses some meaningful knowledge of that Tao (even if they differ on details, or don't associate it with a specific deity)

3. Every individual faces a moral struggle between serving Self and serving The Tao (however they understand it).

4. Our choices (as well as our circumstances) impact our ability to know and follow the Tao (and indirectly impact other's)

Of these four statements, I have do not have any major problems with (3) and (4), or even (2). Most of my disagreement is with the first one, mostly because of what I think it implies. That is, there may be some elaboration of "universal, transcendent standard of virtue" that I might find reasonable, but I am not sure it would be very much like what the Jews (and Christians) would call "The Law".

Now, one might infer from (3) that the moral struggle is somehow a defining characteristic of our lives. That begins the trouble, and that is where Ernie continues.

And in the end, we will all be judged according to multiple dimensions:

i. how we treated other human beings

ii. how well we responded to the Tao we knew

iii. whether we submit to the Tao or demand that it submit to our Self

I presume that this is also something that Ernie believes. But why does he believe this? Why must there be a judgement? Why does he believe there is an afterlife? Ernie has gone from a generally reasonable way of framing ideas about living a moral life and jumped to judgement, with the accompanying implication that there is both a judge and an afterlife in which judgement can be passed.

But ultimately, if any individual chooses to ignore the Tao they've received in order to serve Self at the expense of others, they deserve hell (in fact, God would be unjust not to carry out that sentence). In fact, such a hell seems a logical necessity if a) choices have real consequences, and b) souls persist after death. This hell-worthy behavior could include:

- denying the existence/personal relevance of the received Tao

- defending an imperfect Tao against a superior one (to preserve Self-ish loopholes)

- refusing readily-available divine assistance to fulfill or honor the Tao

There is a huge logical leap here. How does hell become a logical necessity based on (a) and (b)? Is hell the only possible (imaginable) consequence of choosing to ignore the Tao? What kind of hell are we talking about? The really bad eternal kind? Or some kind of squishy hell that is only as bad, or lasts only as long, as necessary to balance things out?

Also, when I compare the items in this latest list against the list of dimensions of judgement earlier, it looks like these latest items fall mostly under (ii) or perhaps (iii). I am unclear if Ernie is simply giving some examples that all happen to fall in one category, or if he trying to say that only violations in some dimensions will lead to hell.

I am not saying that you need to accept the Bible (or even Christianity) as inerrant, literal, or fundamental -- any more than I treat my physics textbooks as inerrant, infallible, or unbiased. Rather, I merely trust that they describe a genuine reality in a mostly reliable and honest way, as the starting point for my personal observations. I don't even think you need to accept my starting point, as long as you're willing to start somewhere (versus refusing even to try to find The Tao).

Would it not be accurate to say that Christianity and the Bible were the starting point for my personal observations? And I have left it behind, because in my search for the Tao (as I suppose you could call it), I have found that much of what I would call Christianity, as well as other theistic religions, have substantial deficiencies, and what is left cannot be properly called Christianity.

Which brings me to my final question, Alan, and something that has long puzzled me. I totally understand why you decided to reject the fundamentalism of your youth as you learned more about the Bible and justice. However, I just can't figure out why that also led to your rejecting all Christianity (including, say, the milder but still robust British evangelicalism practiced by C.S. Lewis) -- much less (as far as I can tell) all of theism and deism. To me, that would be like rejecting all of physics upon discovering that Newton was wrong, which sounds more like spite than logic.

After all, if it is merely the eternal-ness of hell that bothers you, there seem plenty of alternate hermeneutics that would still "fit the data" while avoiding that particular philosophical problem. Yeah, it is a bit ad hoc, but so is an awful lot of science, when you get right down to it.

A proper answer to Ernie's final question is longer than can be included here. In some ways, that was the reason for this blog in the first place. But I will try to summarize some ideas very briefly here.

The eternal-ness of hell was certainly an important consideration, and I think the reason for that was that when other problems are viewed through that lens, those other problems are more clearly seen. As I have stated over and over, if eternal damnation is a possible consequence, we better have a reliable way to avoid it. What we have, however, is clearly not reliable.

Like anybody else, Christians can be slippery people. We fight, consciously and unconsciously, to protect our most cherished beliefs. This was something that has become so clear to me, not just in matters of religion, but in software development, politics and other venues. But what if those beliefs are wrong? Would we not be doing harm to ourselves and others to fight for them if they were wrong? In our pursuit of the Tao, as it were, do we not have an obligation to reject that which is hurtfully false? ("Hurtfully false"? You know what I mean.) I think Christianity falls into that category, despite its inclusion of some good things. I would rather keep what is good and discard the rest.

That will have to be all for tonight.