Tuesday, December 27, 2005

After Christmas: Where Do We Go From Here?

Since we have just celebrated Christmas, I thought it might be appropriate to return just briefly to my initial string of posts discussing some of the problems in the Bible. (I am curious to know how Ernie views this kind of problem, and why apparent deceitfulness on the part of at least one of two biblical authors should not be condemned by Christians.)

The difficulty this time is a discrepancy between Matthew and Luke, the only two gospels that contain accounts of Jesus' birth. Specifically, read Matthew 2:13-23 and Luke 2:21-40.

Briefly, Matthew says that the magi visited Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Bethlehem, and that immediately after that, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod's slaughter, where they stay for some time. They eventually return to Israel, but when they hear that Archelaus is reigning over Judea, they decided to go to Galilee, ending up in Nazareth. Matthew does not say that Nazareth was the hometown of Joseph and Mary; rather it appears the choice to go there was due to the political situation and in order to fulfill a (nonexistent) prophecy.

Luke, on the other hand, has Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem where they meet Simeon. After completing whatever was necessary there, they returned to Nazareth, which Luke describes as their own city.

Even ignoring the differences in reason for ending up in Nazareth, the two accounts are plainly inconsistent regarding how and when they arrived there. Matthew, as usual, has arranged things so as to fulfill as many prophecies as he can, even prophecies that do not exist. (These false fulfillments were the subject of one of my first posts.)

In reviewing these two accounts, I noticed a couple of other oddities. For instance, in Matthew 2:19-20, an angel tells Joseph in a dream that he can take Mary and Jesus back to Israel. But when he gets there and learns of the situation there, he gets afraid and is warned, this time by God, to go somewhere else. It seems like God and his angel could have gotten by with just one dream here and saved Joseph and his family some trouble.

Matthew tells the story of the magi, who are from the east, and who say they saw Jesus' star in the east. I have to wonder how they were able to tell, from a star to the east of the east, that a baby was born in the west. Maybe there is something to astrology after all.

By the way, if you are following along with my discussion with Ernie, note that I did post my latest contribution earlier this evening, which you can read below.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Just Playing God

Wow, I can hardly believe it has been two and a half weeks since I last wrote. One reason for the delay has been the general business of the season, but another reason has been the need to ponder my response to Ernie's most recent contribution to our dialog. After one quick clarification on his summary of my last post, I will try to address his suggested possible alternative afterlife scenarios.

First, the clarification: After quoting my response to one of his previous questions, Ernie said:

I apologize, my question was perhaps misleading. My point was rather, "if God created the universe, but there were no afterlife, would you consider life itself evidence of God's injustice?"

My answer to this question is "No." It might be evidence of God's unfairness, but we have already discarded fairness from this particular line of argument, or at least, I have. Potentially, I could be convinced otherwise, but I would not at present consider that this life in the absence of an afterlife to be evidence of God's injustice. (It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway, that I have been speaking of God as if he exists only for the sake of argument, as it gets tiring making that qualification all of the time.)

In order to probe my understanding of justice, Ernie has suggested a number of possible afterlife scenarios and wonders which ones I would consider just. First, let me point out a minor incongruity in Ernie's formulation, which happens also to relate to an important asymmetry in my view of afterlife consequences. Ernie wonders "what (if any) punitive behavior by God would/could be consistent with [my] understanding of justice." But the general stress of his alternative scenarios is not on punishment (hell) but on reward (heaven). For me this is an important distinction to be made. As far as justice goes, at least insofar as it relates to my argument, the important aspect is that God cannot impose consequences worse than some limit without transgressing into injustice.

I am not particularly concerned in this argument if God chooses to provide better than what somebody deserves. In fact, a main thrust of Christian theology is that nobody deserves heaven and anybody who reaches heaven is getting better than what they deserve. I think there are people who would argue against God's justice on those grounds. While I am sympathetic to those arguments, I do not find them as compelling as the argument for God's injustice on the basis of eternal damnation.

Given this asymmetry, I am not sure that responding to each of Ernie's scenarios as stated will helpful. Still, I will try to explain further how my understanding of justice applies to several possibilities.

One possibility is that there is no afterlife (but we are still positing the existence of God). Would what we observe about life then imply that God is unjust? My short answer: I do not know. The longer version: It depends on how much choice we really have, and it may also depend on whether or not God intervenes and in what situations. Certainly there are some who claim that if God can act to prevent evil but does not, then he cannot be called "good", but that may not necessarily make him unjust. On the other hand, this scenario is not at all the one promoted by Christianity. I understand that a more definitive answer might be helpful for understanding where I am coming from, but I do not have a definitive answer.

Another possibility, which includes at least the classical Christian position as I understand it, is that one's beliefs or actions in this life completely determine whether you end up in heaven or hell for eternity. As should be clear by now, I think that eternal punishment for anything done or believed by temporal, finite and imperfect man, and especially with imperfect information, is unjust. Again, note the asymmetry: eternal punishment is unjust while eternal reward under these circumstances might be merely unfair.

A third option is that there is nothing particularly special about the transition from this life to the afterlife, that life just continues in a different venue, possibly with very different capabilities and information. God imposes punishments as necessary to keep the scales of justice balanced, but these punishments are temporary, in proportion to the evil done either in this life or the next.

Fourth, perhaps the afterlife is not eternal. We continue to exist after death for as long as necessary for the scales of justice to be balanced, being punished if our lives were "net evil", or rewarded if they were "net good". Once balanced, we cease to exist.

I rather suspect that philosophers have been over this kind of ground before (and that ground is probably a muddy mess), and I am certainly not an expert in ethics. Nobody will (or should!) expect anything particularly novel or insightful here. I am just trying to address Ernie's wondering, and I hope that Ernie will be responding soon with some more details about how he sees these issues.

One final note to Ernie or anyone else who wants to link to these posts: I started giving HTML id's to each paragraph, so you should be able to link to a particular paragraph if that would be helpful. You will have to look at the page source to find the values.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

No Fair, N'est Pas?

Thoughts have been simmering in my head for a few days now on how to move forward in my discussion with Ernie. I think I know how to make a small bit of progress today, though as I look back over my last few posts, some of this will be repetitive. Hopefully the repetition will at least serve to emphasize what I am trying to convey.

Much of my pondering has covered the concept of fairness. Is the god of Christianity fair? Does it matter? And as I was doing the dishes today, I concluded that fairness is not the issue, at least not fairness in the sense of impartiality or freedom from prejudice or favoritism. If I were the only person in existence, there could be no unfairness, and yet my argument would stand.

No, the issue is one of justice, morality, and goodness. As I stated earlier, and as Ernie quoted here,

I believe that it is fundamentally unjust to punish someone eternally for choices he makes based on uncertain, incomplete and seemingly contradictory or incoherent information, while being subject to imperfect rationality, having only a finite amount of time and while lacking any methodology, process or other means to overcome these limitations

Ernie then asked if my argument was primarily ethical or epistemological, and to make my previous response clear, if it was not already, my argument is primarily ethical. The epistemological aspects are only one part of the primary argument. Now Ernie has said

I think Alan's arguments apply equally to the fact that "Life is unfair." Thus, it seems to me that this is primarily an ethics question (about God's justice) rather than a epistemic question (about evidence for the supernatural). That is, even if there was no afterlife, I believe Alan would still consider God unjust for the way He's structured the natural world (assuming a Creator God even exists, of course).

I do not agree that my arguments apply equally to the fact that life is unfair. First, as I stated earlier, fairness is not the issue, unless you are careful to use the fairness only in the sense of a (near) synonym for justice. Second, my argument rests on the disproportionate consequence of eternal (infinite) damnation for choices made by temporal (finite) men, and as I noted previously, this is in contrast to the consequences we experience in (this) life.

Now, let me return to Ernie's three "philosophical 'facts'".

a. Ethics: Choices have real consequences

b. Epistemology: Character, not facts, drive belief

c. Theology: God is just not fair

I agree that choices have consequences. And I think I see what Ernie is driving at with (b) and (c). As he later expands, "what we actually believe is also determined in large part by accidents of culture and circumstances", and since belief is apparently a critical component in determining our eternal fate, the premise that those "accidents" strongly influence our beliefs does lead to the conclusion that God is not fair. But this is unfairness in the sense of partiality, and as I have emphasized repeatedly tonight, it is not this kind of unfairness that troubles me. Rather it is the injustice, even the immorality, of God (supposedly) imposing the consequences that he does for those that do not believe.

So. The thoughts simmered, and that is where I ended up. Did I let them simmer long enough? Is what remains good and tasty? I hope so.