Sunday, February 26, 2006

EEE Is Not a Shoe Size

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief (roughly speaking).

"Epistemology of Empirical Essentialism" (E3) is the phrase that Ernie is using to describe this little epistemological project of ours. In his most recent post, he summarizes what he thinks we have agreed on, including the ontological and ethical premises on which it is based. Here, I will quote and comment, and hopefully suggest an appropriate way to move forward.

First, Ernie's summary of E3:

  1. Belief in truth is absolutely good
  2. Knowledge is contextually accurate, paradigmatically-justified belief.
  3. More accurate knowledge enables more accurate predictions
  4. Knowledge approaches truth via honest, collaborative inquiry amongst competing alternatives

Note that I've added the term "absolute" to (I), reflecting our shared belief that Truth is "inherently" good, not contingent on some other good. I've also added "competing alternatives" to (IV) to address the "groupthink" problem. I trust these emendations meet with Alan's approval.

Regarding "absolutely good", I agree that we've agreed that belief in truth is not contingently good, and that "absolute" can mean "inherently or "non-contingently", but I would have preferred either of those two alternatives to "absolutely", since "absolute" can also be taken to mean something like "ultimate". I am concerned that the word "absolute" will lead to later confusion. (We have already had some confusion over epistemological and moral virtues.) For instance, Ernie also lists "Absolutes" in his list of ontological assumptions present in E3. It is not at all clear that "Absolutes" in that context is simply "Non-Contingents" and I am not even sure that "Non-Contingents" properly belongs in an ontology. What do you think, Ernie?

Ernie's other addition, "amongst competing alternatives", strikes me as being a reasonable clarification that reflects my concerns about the role of community and the danger of "group-think" in E3.

I want to emphasize that my understanding of (II) is as a meta-definition of knowledge. I use "meta" here because specific definitions of knowledge will depend on the context and the paradigm. This is bothersome. It means that one person can say "I know X is true" and another can say "I know X is false", and both can be accurate so long as either their contexts or their paradigms differ. Ernie and I are trying to agree on a paradigm. The "context" part is a bit murky here. Ernie introduced this in "Brothers, Can Youse Paradigm", but without a clear (to me) description of what is included or excluded by the context. He said:

I take this infinite regress problem seriously. If that is the only viable definition of knowledge available, I'd have to agree with the skeptics that genuine knowledge is unachievable. However, I choose an alternate path: I reject the notion of 'absolute knowledge'. Instead, I affirm what may be called 'contextual knowledge.' In fact, I would argue this is much closer to what people mean when they say, "I know X is true." Apart from analytic statements (true by definition like, 2+2 = 4), all human knowledge is necessary incomplete. There is no real data for which we have perfect confidence to infinite accuracy; we are always constrained by our context.

However, that doesn't mean knowledge is arbitrary, or disconnected from reality. "Knowledge" in this definition still requires both some a priori justification, as well as a posteori validation. However, my formulation explicitly notes that the former depends on a paradigm, and the latter on a specific context of reality. I honestly can't think of any other meaningful definition of knowledge: can you?

This of course still begs the second-order question, how do we know if our context and paradigm are themselves valid? Certainly we believe they are true, but (to use your phrase) how do we know we are not "self-deceived"?

Must we agree on a context before we can agree what it means to know something? That is, will we "instantiate" the meta-definition of knowledge by supplying both an agreed-upon paradigm and context? Or will we agree that we have differing contexts and that what is known to be true in one context may be unknown or known to be false in another?

Sometimes I would like to get Ernie on the phone and hash out some of these things, but that would not be fair to all (three) of our readers. But I have another observation. In E3 as it exists so far, (I) says we want to believe true things, (II) defines knowledge in a context- and paradigm-dependent way and (IV) describes a paradigm in terms of three epistemic virtues (honesty, collaboration and inquiry). Only (III), as far as I can tell, is concrete enough to be applied as a "truth test". I wonder if we ought not include a couple of other things somehow. How does logic or reason fit? How about parsimony?

Really, I am not trying to be difficult. I want to get on with things, and I am tempted just to pass on some of these things to that we can continue. But being honest and collaborative means, I think, that I should raise these questions now. On the other hand, Ernie, if you think we can safely pass and proceed, and deal with such things as they come up, we can do that. Sometimes having a concrete example to discuss can bring a clarity that abstract frameworks cannot.

As far as "specific assertions, ontologies, and/or ethics that [I] would like to examine next", how about:

  • The Bible is (is not) an honest and reliable document.
  • Eternal damnation can (cannot) be justified (if the Porsche is not already red)
  • Social good is (is not) evidence for the truth of Christianity.
  • Christianity is (is not) best explained as a solely human construction.f

Those are a couple of possibilities. I will think about that some more, and review what we have already written to see if anything else has come up. Obviously, Ernie, if you (or any of our three readers) have suggestions, they would also be welcomed for consideration.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Who Wrote the Bible?

Several weeks ago, future_geek left a comment recommending the book "Who Wrote the Bible" by Richard Friedman. I had heard of the book several times, but never read it. Unlike two other books that I would like to read, this one was in our local public library. I actually finished on Tuesday, but in the flurry of posts exchanged with Ernie and other things I had been putting off, I (obviously) have not gotten around to mentioning it here until now.

Despite the title, the book does not deal with the authorship of the entire Bible, or even the entire Old Testament. It deals almost entirely with Genesis through II Chronicles. Specifically, it describes what is known as the "documentary hypothesis" (DH), which has its roots in the eighteenth century and which has progressed substantially since then. Initially, the DH proposed that two different authors were responsible for the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch) that were traditionally ascribed to Moses. These authors were labeled J and E for reasons that I will mention shortly. Later, three additional authors and editors have been identified: P, D and R. None of these are thought to be Moses or even any near contemporary.

How were these individuals identified (if not by name, then by letter)? Why should this hypothesis be preferred over the traditional ascription to Moses? Some of the evidence is not entirely direct, and some of the details are still contraversial, but on the whole I think the case for the major points is very strong.

Mosaic authorship was being questioned by the third century CE. Through the centuries, a number of factors inconsistent with Mosaic authorship were identified. The most obvious is that the Pentateuch contains the account of Moses' death. That of course could be presumed to have been added by someone else, while the bulk was still written by Moses. But there are several anachronisms, like the list of Edomite kings in Genesis 36 that contains people who lived long after Moses, cities in Canaan identified by names that were not given until they were conquered by the Israelites, and more. Again, one can postulate that these were added by later scribes.

The major impetus for the initial J and E identifications was the large number of "doublets" in the Pentateuch. A doublet occurs when the same story is told twice, or two very similar stories are present. Friedman gives these examples:

There are two different stories of the creation of the world. There are two stories of the covenant between God and the patriarch Abraham, two stories of the naming of Abraham's son Isaac, two stories of Abraham's claiming to a foreign king that his wife Sara is his sister, two stories of Isaac's son Jacob making a journey to Mesopotamia, two stories of a reveloation to Jacob at Beth-El, two stories of God's changing Jacob's name to Israel two stories ofMoses' getting from a rock at a place called Meribah, and more.

So what? Well, as it turns out, in each doublet one of the versions refers to God as Yahweh and in the other he is referred to as Elohim (at least up to the point where Elohim reveals his name to Moses as being Yahweh). Thus the two authors were labeled J (from the German spelling of Yahweh) and E. That was about the extent of my knowledge of the documentary hypothesis prior to reading this book. But the story is far richer than that.

J and E have very different pictures of God: Yahweh is more personal, more anthropomorphic, while Elohim is more distant, more "cosmic". Beyond the name of God, they have other consistent differences in terminology. J appears to be from Judah (the southern kingdom), builds up Aaron and diminishes Moses. E appears to be from Israel (the northern kingdom), builds up Moses and diminishes Aaron. E likes Joshua; J hardly mentions him. J mentions Edom, which bordered Judah, but not Israel; E does not. E is critical of Solomon; Solomon favored the southern priests because they helped him secure the throne. These are just some examples of themes that are consistently found together.

Apparently, J and E were combined into one text (JE), probably after Israel fell to the Assyrians and refugees fled south to Judah. Chronologically, P would come next, then D. P is for Priest, and he would have written most of Leviticus and much of Numbers, as well as I and II Chronicles. D is the Deuteronomist, and as you might therefore guess, he is thought to have written Deuteronomy, as well as Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel and I and II Kings, seven books in all. (Genesis and Exodus are hodgepodges of E, J, P and D.) D saw Josiah as the best king since David; P favors Hezekiah. D's lineage was from the north (like E); P's from the south (like J). P stresses the importance of the Tabernacle; E barely mentions it, J and D not at all. Again, those are just some of the themes that run through the separated pieces.

Finally, proponents of the documentary hypothesis propose someone called R, the "redactor", the man who combined JE, P and D into one semi-coherent text.

Clearly I have skipped over a vast amount of detail from the book, and the book is itself only a moderately detailed elaboration of the background and argument for the documentary hypothesis. I highly recommend the book, which is quite readable and not really that long.

J, E, P and D (and even R) bring unique points of view to their writings, but they share some common characteristics as well. In particular, each appears to be promoting the interests of one group of priests or another, operating within the constraints of tradition and the socio-political environment where each lived. While not at all conclusive, this is at least highly consistent with the idea that these parts of the Bible are human constructions and not inspired. Liberal Christians would not have a problem with this state of affairs, I imagine, but for those of a more conservative bent, it might be more difficult to accomodate.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Judge, May I Approach the Truth?

First of all, let me apologize for yesterday's title. It was an act of desperation. It was, in my opinion, my second-worst title. The worst was No Fair, N'est Pas? which was way too obscure. It should have been "No Fairness, Pa?", leaving the bilingual version as the hidden meaning. And even then, it was not that good. I

Second, I hope I have not been too dense in trying to understand Ernie. I believe that after reading Brothers, Can Youse Paradigm? earlier today that we are making some progress. Tonight I will try to summarize what I think Ernie is saying, and hopefully that will set the stage for continuing.

My concerns have been focused around two major areas. First, that including Community as a critical element of knowledge might lay the groundwork for self-deception, wherein someone can claim to know something because some community has validated it. Second, that the relationship between epistemology and ethics seemed tangled, such that we could claim knowledge that something is true if that "knowledge" would lead to morally virtuous actions.

I suggested that we should split epistemic virtues from other virtues, and let the epistemic virtues shape our epistemology, and let our epistemology and subsequent knowledge constrain our other ethics. While Ernie did not say it quite the same way, I think, perhaps, that he agrees with this.

Ernie described his belief-justifying paradigm this way:

II. Knowledge approaches truth via honest, collaborative inquiry

This statement helps me understand the role that he has for community. First, the statement implicitly affirms a single truth (set of truths), so that we avoid the epistemic relativism that Levitt was complaining about. Second, the involvement of community is in the context of honest inquiry. Honest inquiry more or less requires critical examination of our claims to knowledge. Involving communities that are critical of our claims helps us to do that.

Another way of looking at this is to stress the term "approaches". Since we never arrive, we need to continue to inquire collaboratively with larger and more inclusive communities in order to continue to make progress.

In theory, I still have some vague misgivings about the criticality of community to an epistemology. In practice, I agree that the role community plays is effectively necessary, given our other limitations. So if the understanding that I have just demonstrated accurately reflects Ernie's intent, I am comfortable moving forward.

Take It Or Levitt

As the latest installment of our ongoing discussion, Ernie wrote To Good, Too, Be True, in which he attempts to move us forward toward an agreement on epistemology. Has he been successful? Read on.

Before I really get started, let me relate this little tidbit by Norman Levitt that I came across today regarding Steve Fuller and Intelligent Design (ID). Fuller was a defense witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board, the recent trial where Judge Jones issued a strong ruling against the school board's effort to inject ID into the biology classroom (if only via a brief statement and supplementary textbooks). I read substantial parts of the court proceedings a couple of months ago, before the ruling was issued, but I skipped Fuller's testimony, and I did not really know that much about his involvement in ID. Anyway, the article I read today filled in some details about him. Fuller is a sociologist that studies scientists, and apparently he takes a rather dim view of mainstream science. Levitt writes:

In Fuller's mind, working scientists are in an important sense intellectually deformed. They constitute a narrow, cloistered, inbred hierarchy of myopic specialists largely blind to the "true" nature of science and oblivious to its future trajectory. Science, on this view, maintains its prestige, authority, and access to resources by playing the power game, bullying and intimidating the rest of society. It is "an arrested social movement in which the natural spread of knowledge is captured by a community that gains relative advantage by forcing other communities to rely on its expertise to get what they want." In other words, what we now think of as "science" does not truly comprehend nature, but rather constructs from its own idiosyncratic perspective a limited image of nature, while using the prerogatives of a privileged mandarinate to nullify or suppress all rival knowledge claims that impinge on its territory.

What does this have to do with the current epistemological discussion? I am certainly not saying that Ernie would agree with Fuller; I do not think he would. In fact, I have only ready Levitt's description of Fuller's views and cannot say how faithfully they reflect what Fuller actually says. But there were a couple of phrases in the article that do seem at least superficially similar to what Ernie has recently written. For instance:

There is an obvious nod to the epistemic relativism that is central to the postmodernist view of things, notwithstanding the fact that Fuller indignantly refuses the "postmodernist" label.


From this doctrine, we are to infer that scientific theories are merely variously clever intellectual gizmos cobbled together according to the guild's rules -- a very different thing from a body of reliable and universally valid knowledge. [Emphasis in original]

Now, despite the title of Ernie's post A Post-Modern Faith in Jesus, Ernie more recently wrote "I reject both the Platonic idea that knowledge is truth, and the postmodern idea that knowledge is disconnected from the truth" and he has emphasized the importance of testing knowledge against shared reality. So I would not expect Ernie to be embracing "epistemic relativism". But his continued emphasis on the importance of "subjecting one's analysis and assumptions to critique by a Community" (emphasis mine) and his statement "... within my paradigm I can validly claim to 'know' that Christianity is essentially true ..." bear some similarity to Levitt's statement comparing guild rules to universally valid knowledge. (Or else I misunderstand Ernie's intent.)

That is one of two places where I am still concerned about the epistemology that Ernie is describing. I agree that Community can be helpful in critiquing our claims to knowledge, but there is also the danger that a particular community having the same biases that we have will be used to "validate" our "knowledge". The community that is most valuable in critiquing our analysis and assumptions is a community that is predisposed to disagree with us. But unless that community is convinced (in full or in part), despite that predisposition, what can we say then about what we know?

Now Ernie has elsewhere used the phrase "honest truth-seeking agent", and certainly a community of such agents, even if they shared our bias, would be far better than dishonest non-truth-seeking agents of any kind. But a community of honest, truth-seeking and "contrary" agents is better still. (I believe I am a member of such a community relative to Ernie, as is Ernie relative to me, so this is good for both of us. But neither of us has validated the other's claims of knowledge yet, so we are in that sense both stuck in "epistemic limbo" or something.)

On the other hand, there will always be somebody that disagrees with us on any matter of substance, and who will at least claim to be honest and truth-seeking. I do not think we can wait for 100% agreement before claiming knowledge either. Is the universe thousands of years old, or is it at least billions? I think we can say that we know that answer to that. Many of those that disagree are simply ignorant of the evidence for an old universe. Some are dishonest. Some, I submit, might be honest but have prior commitments to beliefs which are not true, and so perhaps not truly truth-seeking.

How can we account for these considerations in our epistemology? My inclination is to leave the idea of community outside the proper description of the epistemology, or at least to de-emphasize its role. But if I am understanding Ernie, it seems pretty important to him, so I would like to hear his take on this.

The second area of concern that I have has also been touched on before, both by me and by Ernie, and that is the connection that Ernie seems to be forming between epistemology and ethics. As it happens, Levitt touched on this briefly, quoting "feminist philospher" Sandra Harding:

If a theory 'forced' one to assent to politically distasteful, depressing, and counterintuitive claims, then one could regard those consequences as in themselves good reasons to find the theory implausible.

(Again, I am not saying that Ernie would agree with that; I am just highlighting what is at least a superficial similarity in something I came across.)

Now, Ernie just said this:

This would also imply that Good Knowledge does not merely enable us to carry out arbitrary intentions, but explicitly supports those Intentions which produce Good (i.e., Belief in Truth). Sure, "effective knowledge" might be instrumentally useful in some short-term sense, but I am asserting that such knowledge is fundamentally incomplete if it ultimately conflicts with the imperative to believe Truth.

I confess I am having trouble understanding what Ernie is getting at here. But I would like to offer a distinction and see if Ernie agrees. Again, what I find troubling is the coupling between epistemology and ethics, where it seems that what we know affects what is right, and that what is right affects what we know. My discomfort would be substantially reduced, possibly eliminated, if we split things this way: we identify and agree on epistemic virtues that lead to (or at least constrain) our epistemology. What we can claim to know based on that epistemology then influences the rest of our ethics.

I fear I have not made that very clear, but I also fear that my ability to make it more clear tonight is rapidly waning. Worse, I still have to think of a title for this post. Ernie, if you need more clarification before you can respond, let me know and I will try again.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Ernie brought up presuppositionalism a few weeks ago. Debunking Christianity recently published a post titled Understanding Presuppositionalism, written by a former pastor (now atheist) who had some exposure to presuppositionalism. He presents his understanding of presuppositionalism and asks for corrections; he also presents, as you might expect, some responses.

Commentary on Carrier-Wanchick Debate

I have spent some time reading the rebuttals in the Carrier-Wanchick debate. No doubt I am biased, but I do not think Wanchick is fairing very well. I am not going to offer any kind of complete analysis here, but have some isolated comments.

Epistemological Method

Carrier began his opening statement by describing his method:

If we want all our beliefs to be more likely true than false, then we must proportion our beliefs to the evidence. So if our reasons to believe are few and unreliable, our confidence should be low, and if our reasons to believe are many and reliable, our confidence should be high, with an appropriate continuum between. That mean's if we have no reason to believe something, then we should not believe it, and if we have much better reasons to believe something than we have not to, then we should believe it.

This is very similar to something I wrote very early on in this blog, in "Would You Believe It?":

Third, our commitment to beliefs ought to be consistent with the evidence supporting those beliefs. When evidence and reason is insufficient, we should delay commitment. When supporting evidence is found, strengthen commitment. When contrary evidence is found, commitment must weaken. When commitment to belief exists apart from evidence and reason, we cease to be rational, and we will very likely end up believing falsehood.

So, we do not pretend certainty where things are uncertain, and we believe today what is best supported by the evidence that we have today, leaving tomorrow's beliefs for tomorrow's evidence.

For instance, when Carrier argues that all pertinent observations show various mental activities occurring only in the presence of physical minds, he is not claiming that immaterial minds are impossible or even improbable, only that we have no positive evidence for them. Wanchick protests that "this doesn't demonstrate that probably no immaterial minds exist." This is true, but beside the point. We have not observed any invisible pink unicorns either, and so we do not believe in them, until such time as they are actually observed. It is not a question of possibility but of practicality. There are uncountable possibly true but actually false statements that could be made. Being possibly true is not sufficient grounds for belief, and being possibly false is not sufficient grounds for disbelief. Both possibilities are grounds to remain open to later confirming or disconfirming evidence.

Confirmed Predictions

Wanchick, at the end of his attempted rebuttal of Carrier's "Basic Argument for Naturalism", says:

Alas, far from millions, I can't recall even one instance where scholarship confirmed naturalistic predictions over theistic ones. I can recall, though, myriad examples of the reverse: the discovery of the universe's origin, life's incalculable complexity/order, the lack of transitional fossils and sudden appearance of animal kinds in geology, the universe's delicate fine-tuning, the recalcitrance of mental and moral properties to materialistic explanation, the historicity of Jesus' resurrection, etc.

Wow. The computer with which he wrote those words is, by itself, the result of many (hundreds? thousands? millions?) confirmed naturalistic predictions. When space probes land on Mars or Titan, it is confirmation of naturalistic predictions. When he drives his car to work, more predictions are confirmed. When Hurrican Katrina destroyed New Orleans, it was confirmation of naturalistic predictions. I could go on and on.

And what of Wanchick's examples of theistic predictions? Is complexity of design the hallmark of intelligent design, or is simplicity? Transitional fossils? They are not so uncommon. Sudden appearance of animal kinds? Not so sudden, and recent fossil discoveries hint toward even less sudden appearances than previously thought. Historicity of Jesus' resurrection? That is hardly confirmed. Each of these deserves more detailed rebuttals, but those will have to wait.

Also, Wanchick takes issue with Carrier's examples of lightning, orbital motion and disease being theistic predictions, saying

For classical theism doesn't hold that lightning, disease, or the order/maintenance of the solar system are generally products of direct supernatural intervention.

While these are not necessary predictions of theism, each of them has been "explained" at various times in theistic or other supernatural terms. (Of course, some predictions predicated on naturalism have proven false too, but the eventual explanations have also been naturalistic.)

Material and Immaterial Minds

Wanchick reasons invalidly:

... Carrier claims that God could've created us with immaterial "brainless minds" (BMs). This entails that human minds are disembodied in some possible world (PW); consequently, human minds are possibly disembodied in every PW. But if anything can possibly exist disembodied, it is not a material substance, since material substances can't exist without matter. Therefore, human minds are immaterial substances.

It does not follow that if human minds are disembodied in some possible world (and therefore possibly disembodied in every PW) that human minds are necessarily disembodied. Only disembodied minds need be immaterial. So it remains possible that minds are material, contrary to Wanchick's claim that minds are immaterial in all possible worlds.

Worse, Wanchick later states:

But in fact Carrier himself has already conceded that substance dualism is true. For we saw in AMBD that human minds are necessarily nonmaterial.

First, Carrier conceded nothing of the sort. How could he, since he has not responded yet? And as we just saw, Wanchick reached the conclusion about necessarily immaterial minds through an invalid argument. Putting false conclusions into Carrier's mouth will not help Wanchick's case.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Naturalism Vs. Theism, Chapter 2

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that an online debate on "Naturalism vs. Theism" had begun and opening statements were available. Now two weeks have passed and the rebuttals to the opening statements are now available. How are they doing?

This Better Be Good

In Aristotle's Spiral, Ernie has begun to describe his epistemology, through which he claims to be able to know that Christianity is true, for appropriate definitions of "know", "Christianity" and "true". (A clever statement I heard once says "One is nearly equal to two, for large values of one and small values of two.") He hopes that we will be able to "define a mutually-satisfying epistemic framework" which has started with our agreement on two axiomatic principles:

  1. Truth exists
  2. Belief in Truth is Good
In my last three posts, I tried to explain the difficulty I had seeing how Ernie arrived at belief in Christianity from a small number of generic definitions and axioms, and particularly how he could defend his answer to my question about what could lead him (roughly speaking) to abandon belief in Christianity. As I suspected, Ernie has confirmed that there are additional supporting "inputs" and "identifying those is the goal of [Ernie's] epistemic framework." As we identify them, we ought also be able to identify further possibilities for falsification. (Do you agree, Ernie?)

After some lame excuse about not being able to solve ancient philosophical puzzles in a single post :-), he offers the following additional epistemological principles:

  1. Knowledge imperfectly reflects Truth
  2. Better Knowledge produces Better results
  3. Knowledges improves through honest collaborative inquiry into shared Reality

Do I agree with these? Well, I have no problem with (3). (4) needs a bit of clarification. "Better knowledge" is, I presume, knowledge that more perfectly reflects truth. But what are "better results"? And can knowledge itself produce anything?

My explanation of "better results" would be something like this: "Better results are results that more closely match the intended results of an agent's action." There is a more general principle that might be stated that emphasizes the predictive aspect and de-emphasizes the agent's involvement: "Better knowledge produces better predictions." (In either principle, "produces" should be understood rather loosely, as the knowledge does not itself produce anything; instead it is used to produce something.)

I am uncertain, however, if this is what Ernie intended by "better results". I will return to this later where it becomes more clear.

Regarding (5), I agree with the statement itself, but I do not agree with some of Ernie's explanation:

That is, I reject both the Platonic idea that knowledge is truth, and the postmodern idea that knowledge is disconnected from truth. Rather, I explicitly affirm both Community and Reality as the critical inputs necessary to enable my Knowledge to asymptotically approach Truth. In spirit, I often find myself much closer to Aristotle than any other school.

While community is very helpful in developing knowledge, I am not so sure that it is critical, nor am I convinced that (as Ernie later says) "Knowledge, to be validated, must be encoded in a form accessible by a given community." Still, at this point I am unsure how important this principle is to our discussion, so I am not going to get hung up on this. As far as reality being a critical input, I wonder if I understand what Ernie is driving at there, as this seems true almost by definition. Loosely speaking, I would call "truth" the perfect description of reality. In this sense, reality is obviously necessary for truth to exist, and is therefore a requirement for knowledge as well. But that does not seem to help too much. Am I missing an essential distinction?

Ernie lists four implications of his epistemology:

  1. The purpose of these axiomatic truths is to enable greater knowledge
  2. Knowledge, to be validated, must be encoded in a form accessible by a given community
  3. Knowledge must therefore be tested against a reasonable shared reality
  4. The ultimate test of the quality of knowledge is whether it produces Good outcomes

As before, we might quibble over some details but I think the critical issues that need to be addressed are raised by (d). This is part of what leads me to wonder about Ernie's earlier use of "better results". Here, "good outcomes" seems to be a description of moral worth, and this becomes even more clear later when Ernie says "The Truth is what Works" (but "What Works is not the Truth") and later explains

Note that "Works" in this context means "successfully creates Good." Thus, it is important to note that my epistemology is incomplete without a companion ethical framework, which is logically the next thing on the agenda.

Based on these later statements, I believe Ernie is trying to tie knowledge to moral good, such that you can uncover truth by looking at what produces moral good. This presents several difficulties. First, what you consider to be morally good may very well depend on what you believe is true, so that you risk being trapped by your prior beliefs. Second, measuring the total moral good (or evil) associated with some belief or action strikes me as difficult; causes and effects are hard to untangle and the potential for bias is high. These are serious problems.

But even before you get to those two problems that would be encountered if we accepted this causal relationship between knowledge and moral good, there is a still more important difficulty. Is this principle reasonable? Is the causal relationship valid? I think not. Like most tools, knowledge can be used for good or for evil. We might try to rescue the principle by saying "The ultimate test of the quality of knowledge is whether moral agents are able to effect good outcomes." But even so, this seems a rather gratuitous addition to the epistemology. There are many kinds of knowledge that are entirely amoral in nature. To state that the ultimate test of knowledge is based on good moral outcomes is reaching too far.

As far as I can tell, this principle appears to be central to Ernie's epistemology. For instance, consider these additional statements he makes:

  1. My goal is to do as much Good as possible.
  2. In order to do (1), I must believe as much Truth as possible
  3. This requires discovering what beliefs Work to create Good
  4. Those beliefs must simultaneously motivate personal, social, and intellectual virtue

These statements reflect, I think, the importance Ernie places on the "knowledge leads to good" (KLTG) principle.

There are a few more things that I should touch on, but this is enough for tonight, except for this bit of humor. Search for "epistemology" on Google. The only ad that comes up (for me at least) is from e-Bay: "Looking for Epistemology? Find exactly what you want today." Why didn't I think of that before?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Heating a Red Porsche

In his latest contribution, "Hard Truths vs. Hard Liqour, Ernie offers some but not all of the clarifications I was looking for, as well as proposing a couple of principles that we might agree on.

First, the clarification:

Alan is right that my manifesto is not quite the same as an "epistemological framework." To be precise, it is more a creedal statement designed to constrain the space of valid ethical, epistemological, ontological, and anthropological belief systems. But aren't you glad I didn't call it that at first? :-)

Actually, that would have been (and is now) a helpful clarification. I inferred that Ernie was using his manifesto as a constraint on "believable" belief systems, but I appreciate his making that explicit. However, this still does not address my confusion over how he proceeds from this constrained set of belief systems to the much narrower set of belief systems that could be labeled "Orthodox Christianity". Going back to "Absolut Beliefs", Ernie said:

However, to Alan's question, this does mean that if I found either:

  1. ) a belief system disjoint from Christianity that better expressed my principles, or
  2. ) principles with greater explanatory power than mine

On the basis of the first option, I infer that Ernie considers Christianity to be the best expression of his principles. Whether that is true or not, I fail to see how he can justify belief in Christianity on the basis of these principles alone. For instance, if Ernie discovered some kind of convincing proof that Jesus was not a real person and that the stories of his life were complete fabrications, it seems to me that the stories would still express Ernie's principles just as well as they do now, despite being false. Similarly, perhaps I could write some new stories about, say, a flying spaghetti monster that were an even better expression of Ernie's principles. Would Ernie then change his beliefs to align with these fabricated stories? I hope not.

For that matter, it is unclear to me why Ernie feels that he must identify some "larger" belief system that expresses his principles. Why, for instance, can he not just start with those beliefs that he has decided are foundational to him and apply them more directly?

This is nothing different from what I have been trying to say in my last several posts on this subject, and it appears I have not yet been sufficiently clear. Ernie gets "the sense that [I am] specifically concerned about whether the Bible is Honest and Reliable." As my examples above show, that is a concern, but the more important question I have here is how Ernie gets from his principles to Christianity without any other "inputs". If he does have other inputs, then those other inputs should provide further possibilities for causing him to reject orthodox Christianity, beyond the two he has admitted.

Is the horse dead yet?

Moving on, Ernie suggests that we need to develop a common epistemology, but quickly throws in a little detour:

To start with, I think we need a set of axiomatic "first principles" we agree on as being true. Intriguingly, Alan has said that he consider my manifesto "nice", and that if people believed those things "the world would be a better place than it is today." However, he has stopped short of saying that he considers those statements "true." Was that a deliberate withholding, or a mere oversight?

Just to be clear, I did not use the word "nice" to describe his manifesto, which is not to say that I would not. He is emphasizing "nice" vs. "true". Since I said I was not sure what everything there was intended to mean, he can hardly fault me for not affirming its truth, and it was (for that reason) a deliberate withholding. Also, the manifesto contains several value-laden statements, e.g., "The best human act... the next best...", and statements like those, whether or not I agree, are not statements that I would label "true".

Finally, regarding Ernie's proposed axioms:

  1. Truth exists
  2. Belief in Truth is Good

I agree with those.

After some elaboration, he says:

I suspect that Alan agrees with the sentiment, but may object to my use of "virtue" and "vice." Yet, I have no idea how to state that principle without the use of value-laden terms. Perhaps he can rephrase me for a change?

The words do not bother me. As far as I can tell, there are reasonable definitions and uses of those terms that do not presuppose anything to which I would object. Such is the case here.

The title of this post, by the way, is just a nonsense phrase related to the abuse of expired members of genus Equus. Now I'll wait for the flood of visitors searching for car maintenance tips.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Just To Be Absolutly Clear

This will be, I hope, just a quick follow-up to my last post. In re-reading what I wrote, I am not sure I communicated my intent clearly with regard to Ernie's manifesto and its connection to his beliefs. In addition to what I did say, another point of confusion for me is that the argument "X implies/supports Y, I believe/assume Y, therefore I will believe X" is a logical fallacy, and I am quite sure that Ernie would recognize that. So, that makes me wonder if I am really understanding the connection he is trying to make. And because I do not understand how he is making the connection, I do not understand how or why finding either "a) a belief system disjoint from Christianity that better expressed [Ernie's] principles, or b) principles with greater explanatory power" would be sufficient (or necessary?) to cause Ernie to adjust his beliefs.

I also promised to respond in more detail to this:

What I find most intriguing is that your statement of goals could be formulated as:

I. It is better to believe truth than to be self-deceived.

As I said before, I agree with this statement, although I do not see that phrasing as being a goal, but more of a statement of value. The goal would be "to seek truth and avoid self-deception." But that is a minor quibble.

Ernie then said:

I certainly agree with (I) as well but I see that as embodying a fairly rich set of assumptions about:

i) moral value -- "better"

ii) transcendent reality -- "truth"

iii) imperfect humanity -- "self-deceived"

Again, as I said before, I do not understand what Ernie means in (iii). Also, Ernie has been using the word "transcendent" frequently, and that word can take meanings that I would not accept here. provides these definitions:

  1. Surpassing others; preeminent or supreme.
  2. Lying beyond the ordinary range of perception: “fails to achieve a transcendent significance in suffering and squalor” (National Review).
  3. Philosophy.
    1. Transcending the Aristotelian categories.
    2. In Kant's theory of knowledge, being beyond the limits of experience and hence unknowable.
  4. Being above and independent of the material universe. Used of the Deity.

In this context, I would accept the first definition, so that we are talking about what is "really" true, but without any assumption that such reality is "supernatural". Not that I am denying the possibility of such a reality - I just want to be clear that it cannot be assumed. The second and fourth definitions are too close to that meaning. If the third definition is being applied, I wonder how we would make progress. "Unknowable reality" does not seem very practical, at the very least.

So, with that clarification, and assuming an agreeable explanation of what Ernie meant in (iii), I am quite comfortable affirming this as a goal or value. But then, I would not have expected there to be a question about that, for either of us.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Vodka Is Not A Belief System

Ernie's has added his most recent contribution to our discussion, "Absolut Beliefs". The true foundation of Ernie's beliefs turns out to be ... vodka? Perhaps not.

I had posed to Ernie the question "What would it take for you to stop believing in Christianity." Apparently Ernie cannot let me say anything without rephrasing it, but as usual he has done well with his replacement:

What would it take for your understanding of Christianity to change so much that you wouldn't consider it compatible with orthodoxy (or vice versa)?

Whether he was thinking of this or not, it reminded me of a statement I made not too long ago:

And I have left [Christianity] behind, because ... 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.

So Ernie's replacement question is quite satisfactory. But what about his answer? That was what I was most curious to learn. To answer the question, Ernie has referred us first to his manifesto, which I recommend reviewing. I'll wait... OK? Good. Now I am not entirely sure what everything there is intended to mean, but there is nothing that I find unreasonable. If everyone somehow based their lives on those principles, I am sure the world would be a better place than it is today.

Ernie has said several times now that we have to believe something before we can know anything. Now I had thought I understood roughly what he meant by this before. I thought he was talking about having to start with some kind of epistemological framework. But if I understand his last post, he has treated the contents of his manifesto as the beliefs that precede his knowledge. While the manifesto touches on truth, belief and knowledge, it does not really match my expectations for the kind of belief that is required for knowledge.

Perhaps because of that mismatch, the connection between Ernie's next two steps confuse me. He asserts that Christianity aligns well with his principles and that other belief systems do not align well. While I may not agree, I can accept that he sees things that way. But the final step is to answer my question, where he says he would change his beliefs if he found either "a) a belief system disjoint from Christianity that better expressed my principles, or b) principles with greater explanatory power than mine".

One reason I find these steps confusing is he seems to be starting with a few abstract things that he assumes to be true and arriving at something far more wide-ranging that he also considers true. Christianity entails far more than what is included in his basic principles, in which there is no hint of God or an afterlife. If his manifesto represents (all) his most basic beliefs, why add so much baggage? (It is almost as if he were saying "I believe X is true; Y implies X and Z; A, B and C do not imply X or imply ~X. Therefore I will believe Y and (therefore) Z.") This is a particularly troubling question to me because of the way he turns things around to answer my question. He says he would need a belief system disjoint from Christianity, but I wonder why it could not be a belief system that is a subset of Christianity, and in particular a subset that contains (for example) some of the moral instruction but excluding the theistic parts. ("Y = P + Q; P implies X; P does not imply Z. Why then choose Y over P?")

I hope I have explained that well enough that Ernie can respond sensibly and hopefully clarify. No doubt he will restate things far more clearly than I have been able to do.

Ernie also reformulated one of my stated goals (imagine that) as "It is better to believe truth than to be self-deceived." He asks if that is what I meant, and offers some further clarifications. Generally, I would agree with this formulation as well, though I am unsure what he means by equating or correlating "imperfect humanity" with "self-deceived." A little help, Ernie? There are a couple other clarifications that I might offer, but I need to get some sleep tonight, so I will try to pick this up tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Honest and Reliable? You Decide.

Tonight I want to take a different tack. In Christianity today there is a diverse set of ways to look at the Bible, with inerrantists saying that everything it says is true, and the most liberal Christians describing it as myth. Ernie seems to be somewhere in the middle, based on statements like "... I find the Bible generally useful in an 'illustrative' way" and "I merely trust that they describe a genuine reality in a mostly reliable and honest way, as the starting point for my personal observations."

While I was still trying to decide whether I could continue to believe or not, one concern that I had was with the development of the Bible. When Paul says in II Timothy 3:16 that "all scripture is God-breathed" (NIV) or "inspired by God" (NASB), what scripture was he talking about? Many of the epistles and perhaps all of the Gospels had not even been written when Paul wrote this. (Or did he really write it? Perhaps not.) And we know of many other gospels and epistles that were written but were not included in what became the Bible as we know it today. None of the New Testament was considered scripture before about 150 A.D. There are still multiple canons accepted by different churches around the world.

In addition, by the second century A.D. there were already various branches of Christianity forming, the Gnostics being (I suppose) the most well-known of the supposed heretics. Each group promoted different writings as authoritative, of course. What eventually became the orthodox church "won" the battle for supremacy. Of course, if a different group had come out on top, that would have been orthodox and the losers, including the forerunners of modern Christianity, would have been the heretics. How was this battle won? Should we believe that the one group was inspired by God and so could be trusted? Even when the means of victory included, perhaps even relied upon, the violent suppression of opposing viewpoints?

And what of church authorities that explicitly condoned deceitfulness as a means of promoting Christianity? For instance, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century, titles a chapter in one of his books "How it may be Lawful and Fitting to use Falsehood as a Medicine, and for the Benefit of those who Want to be Deceived". St. Jerome wrote "To confute the opposer, now this argument is adduced and now that. One argues as one pleases, saying one thing while one means another." (These and many other examples are described in Forgery in Christianity.)

I have already described a variety of problems with Matthew that I believe justify describing it as intentionally deceitful. The authorship of all four gospels and many of the epistles (as I mentioned early) is highly questionable. The Old Testament has significant problems as well. While this is more of a problem for inerrantists than for more liberal readers, the terms "reliable" and "honest" are not ones I would choose to describe them.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Presumption, I Presume

Until last night, I had not heard of "presuppositional apologetics". Then I came across Why Do Christians Presuppose the Bible is God's Word? on Debunking Christianity, a relatively new blog that I have been reading. So I had a bit of a laugh when Ernie posted Does Secularism = Relativism = Nihilism?, based on another blog he reads that recently mentioned presuppositionalism.

Since I have only recently even heard of this, I am not going to say too much about it until I have had more time to get a feel for what is really being said. The quote that Ernie includes, however, has some highly questionable claims.

How is it then, then, that atheists know anything? They have knowledge because they presuppose the existence of the Christian God, but they suppress God's truth in their unrighteousness. In other words, there are no authentic atheists. There are only self-deceived individuals whose rejection of their Creator has resulted in a culpable ignorance of the Truth.

Really. How convenient. I guess how I could see how someone holding this view would feel pretty secure in their beliefs, because anyone that disagreed is, almost by definition, deceived. Does this not make alarm bells go off in your head? How can you possibly show that belief in the God of Christianity (specifically!) is necessary for knowledge? Even if there were some philosophical reasoning that made human knowledge dependent on some kind of transcendent personality, why would it have to be the Christian God? "Begging the question" is the phrase that comes to mind.

But perhaps that quote is not representative. Ernie also provided a link the Wikipedia article Presuppositional apologetics which paints a slightly better picture. Apparently, some presuppositionalists answer the question of circularity by claiming that "all worldviews are ultimately circular" and that the "when considering worldviews, the concern must ... [be] for internal coherence."

And that brings us back to the ongoing dialog that Ernie and I have been having, which has, I think, come back nearly to where we started. A couple of posts ago, Ernie suggested that neither of us was clear about whether he was trying to convince me that his beliefs are true versus merely consistent. In his more recent post, in summarizing what he sees as unstated questions that have been underlying the conversation recently, he includes several questions related to the idea of truth vs. consistency:

  1. Is Christianity demonstrably true? Or demonstrably false?
  2. Is it possible to be logical consistent and a Christian?
  3. Can a reasonable conception of justice co-exist with any meaningful concept of eternal hell?
  4. How do we know what is true? How do we decide if we've been self-deceived?
  5. Does Christianity promote virtue? Is that an answerable (or even askable) question?
  6. What do I believe? Why?

He goes on to list a number of things that he believes, and says that I need to "ante up *something*.", something that is "an unquestionable absolute" that we can agree on before he can proceed. Or, alternatively, I can ask a single specific question that can be decoupled from all the others.

At this point, the single question that I would like to have Ernie answer is the one I posed here:

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?

Finally, I want to revisit a question that Ernie posed a few weeks ago.

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.

The difficulty I have with Ernie's suggestion is that it seems to be aimed at maintaining some part of my (previous) beliefs, as if that were a goal I should have. It was too close to a "God of the gaps" approach, where I would grudgingly believe less and less as I went on, holding on to as much as I could, as long as I could. My goal was to discover the truth, so far as it can be known. Because I saw how people have a tendency to defend their beliefs, I wanted to avoid an approach that would allow internal defense mechanisms an opportunity to flourish.

I would like to suggest that this kind of defense mechanism explains certain facets of the development of liberal Christianity, wherein beliefs previously held are slowly eroded and replaced by less obviously flawed substitutes. Ernie, are you concerned about the possibility that such defense mechanisms may be at work in your mind? How, if at all, do you counter them?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Tao Cow, Take Two

Ernie's back with a brief contribution to our discussion, in which he quotes and then rephrases a statement that I recently made. I said:

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

Ernie then offered this rephrasing, really more of an elaboration:

Most ethical behavior can be derived from a fairly small set of general principles. These principles are not transcendent or grounded in divinity, but are (like natural law) discernible and achievable through human effort. We may not know them perfectly, but (like science) we can know them well enough to make useful decisions. Failure to understand and apply these ethical principles properly will jeopardize both personal happiness and social welfare (just like failing to understand the rules of sanitation will jeopardize public health).

Ernie asks if this is an accurate rephrasing, and it is fairly reasonable. I would not have included the comparisons to natural law or science, because I am not sure these principles share quite the same level of reality as natural law, or the same rigor as science. Also, I can for instance imagine that sociopathic individuals might derive a sort of personal happiness from actions which harm others, so while the above statements may be generally accurate, there are complications that prevent it from being complete. But those are only minor complaints.

Still, this may not really resemble Ernie's Tao that closely.

Ernie also requested a concise summary of my Tao, those basic principles that lead to ethical behavior. I have not actually constructed an explicit list, though it may be an useful exercise for me. It will require a bit of thought though, and I am not prepared to provide them yet.

I would like to return to Ernie's post The Tao of Hell (or Perhaps Vice Versa), his introduction to his concept of the Tao and how that relates to hell. I'll refer to that post as "TTOH". After my response to that post, How Now, Tao Cow" (or HNTC), he suggested in It Takes Tao to Tango (ITTTT) that

[Alan] isn't clear about whether I'm trying to convince him that my views are "true" vs. merely "consistent." Then again, maybe I'm not either. :-)

In TTOH, Ernie enumerates a number of things that he believes, including a description of the Tao according to Ernie, the judgement that may await us, and possible examples of hell-worthy behavior. In HNTC, I did question why he believes in that judgement, which I suppose was an example of asking for truth rather than consistency. Whether Ernie is trying to convince me or not, I do wonder why he believes this. Part of the reason for this question on my part is that I am still trying to figure out how much weight Ernie really places on the Bible. Are there reasons to believe in an afterlife (either good or bad) other than "the Bible says so" or "people have believed it for a long time"? Or is this merely a logically-consistent belief?

The other issue I raised in HNTC about TTOH concerned Ernie's statement that "... such a hell seems a logical necessity if a) choices have real consequences, and b) souls persist after death." I fail to see such a logical necessity, and the phrase "logical necessity" seems much stronger than what is implied by consistency. Doesn't "logical necessity" mean that (subject to the truth of the premises) true statements can be made about the existence and character of hell? I think Ernie needs to defend or otherwise explain this assertion.

Finally, Ernie did say:

Further, I believe I can justify -- and would willingly attempt to defend -- this position:
  • scripturally
  • historically
  • anthropologically
  • psychologically
  • philosophically

Words like "justify" and "defend" suggest to me something like an assertion of "truth". Either way, whether it is for consistency or for truth, I would be interested in seeing these justifications developed.