Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Cheating a Dread Course

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

After a brief respite, Ernie responded last Friday in Systemic Failure to my last post in our conversation, Getting Back on Track. While he agreed that "we seem to have lost our way", I take issue with this:

I remain concerned that Alan doesn't seem able to articulate a coherent ontological position as an alternative to Christianity...

I wonder what Ernie found to be incoherent. If he had said "incomplete" I would complain less, because I do not claim to have answers to every question, but incoherent implies something incomprehensible or even contradictory. Perhaps Ernie chose his wording carelessly; if there is something he finds incoherent, it would be better to ask for clarification.

With that out of the way, and in complete disregard of any of my suggestions for how to continue, Ernie has moved us on to the topic of ethics. (We did, however, raise that as a possible direction several months ago.) Fine.

Ernie ends thusly:

In this context, I define "ethics" as theories about how to optimally structure Social Systems, relatively to whatever purpose or metric(s) those theories define.

Thus, our respective challenge is not to defend the existence of such systems, but both to define our criteria for a successful ethics, and defend why our particular framework is optimal for achieving that.

Fair enough? And are you comfortable that this is both necessary and sufficient to answer the ethical questions you are concerned with?

That is quite a challenge. Is it sufficient? Probably. Is it necessary? I think not. Philosophers far smarter and more expert than me (I won't speak for Ernie) have argued over ethics for centuries without resolution. I am hoping we can make some progress in less time than that.

Back when we were discussing hell (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here at which point we pretty much trailed off into epistemology), I made a number of ethical assertions which I think were relatively simple and reasonable. For instance, back in Bringing Back the Draft I said

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.

Later, I restated this in Hell and Justice, Redux as

God is unjust if he imposes eternal punishment for the actions/beliefs of limited people operating on limited information in limited time. God is also unjust if he imposes punishment for someone's innate nature.

Still later in No Fair, N'est Pas?, I said

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.

Ernie, in Ernie's Ethical Inferno said:

Since Alan has so patiently and valiantly attempted to answer all my questions, I will finally answer his: "Do I believe in hell?" The short answer is:

Yes, I do believe that the Biblical descriptions of an eternal hell do refer to some sort of meaningful objective reality that await non-believers.

However -- and this is crucial to his question -- I actually think the biblical evidence for such a state is somewhat amibguous; rather, it is the philosophical evidence (based on my understanding of choice and justice) which convinces me hell exists. That isn't to say I "know" hell exists (much less could "prove" it), just that this is what I "believe."

There have been several other occasions where Ernie has claimed he could support various claims scripturally, historically, anthropologically, psychologically, or philosophically and sometimes all of those. But so far, that support has not been provided. I have asked Ernie on numerous occasions to describe how philosophical considerations can provide support for far more specific beliefs, especially those rooted in historical events. See, for instance, Heating a Red Porsche as well as several of my recent posts. Ernie, if you need a long detour through epistemology, ontology and ethics to support your case, take your time and have at it. I do not think the questions are that hard, or require that much intellectual machinery to answer.

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