Thursday, April 06, 2006

Is There Universal Agreement?

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

Never get behind. That was good advice when I was in school, and it seems to apply to "diablogues" too. I was ahead, now Ernie has two posts that I need to respond to, Double-Check and The Universe, and Three Examples. In hopes of getting us back to a single thread, I will try to address both of these tonight.

Double-Check is a response to my earlier post Claim Check: Introduction, in which I presented eight statements that (when elaborated and substantiated) I assert provide good reason to reject Christian belief. Ernie subsequently asked me to present an alternative belief system, rather than simply knocking down Christianity, which has lead rather quickly to discussions of the nature of reality. More on that later.

In Double-Check, Ernie reduces my argument to two premises plus the conclusion and grants that the (simplied) argument would be true and valid given some definitions and assumptions, but claims, admittedly nothing more than assertion at this point, that he can provide alternative definitions and assumptions that would avoid my critique and provide superior explanatory power. I am not clear if he would make that same claim in relation to the eight-statement version of the argument, though I expect he would. One possible way forward, then, is to flesh out the necessary definitions and assumptions and compare. Hold that thought.

Moving on to The Universe, And Three Examples, Ernie attempts to answer several of my questions, all of which (in his view) can be reduced to the question "What is real?". Almost parenthetically, he makes this statement:

I also want to point out that I am starting from philosophy, not theology. That is, I trust the Bible because it explains the divinity I observe, not vice versa. To me, the Bible is a reflection of belief in God, not the cause; a subtle but crucial distinction we may need to revisit.

In some ways, I do not find this statement unsurprising, given what he has said previously about how he views the Bible and other historical considerations. I do hope, though, that he will elaborate on this, because it seems to me that Christianity relies on some historical events (like the resurrection), and it is difficult to see how the truth of a historical account can be established by philosophical considerations.

I had asked Ernie to clarify the apparent discrepancy between his statements that belief in God is partly imaginary and that divinity is what is ultimately, non-contingently real. He responds:

In particular, to Alan's question (c), I can easily have contingent "imaginary" beliefs about "real" objects that (even if they are not 'divine') are not contingent, at least on me. For example, the statement "The stars will not frighten me" is only true if I believe it, and thus qualifies as an imaginary statement by my definition; but, that hardly means the stars are imaginary!

In other worlds, real entities can be the object of both real and imaginary beliefs, whereas fictional entities are always the object of imaginary beliefs (unless we assign nominal reality to a fictional universe, purely as an artistic convention).

In his original definition of imaginary beliefs, he said:

Belief A is imaginary if A is true if and only if someone believes A is true

Now I think we might be having a little trouble here because the phrase "belief in God" is not too specific about what the actual belief is. I had taken it to mean that one believes "God exists", perhaps with some associated defining attributes. If we substitute that for A we get:

The belief "God exists" is imaginary if "God exists" is true if and only if someone believes "God exists" is true.

Or, more colloquially,

The belief "God exists" is imaginary if God exists if and only if someone believes God exists.

The example that Ernie gives addresses a belief about one's reaction to stars, not about stars themselves, and unfortunately does nothing to reduce my confusion over the two statements I contrasted. Where did I go wrong? Can you try again, Ernie?

I am comfortable with Ernie's definition of the universe as "the objective reality behind our subjective experience and his brief elaboration on that. He describes three different candidate universes: material, rational and spiritual. Naturally I accept the existence of the material universe. (Get it? "Naturally.") As far as the rational universe goes, while being familiar with viewing it in this way, I cannot say I really grok it. Similarly, to describe the spiritual universe as being "inhabited by concepts such as Choice, Character, Good, Justice, Beauty and Love" makes some sense (to me) as a bit of metaphor, but not as a description of (a) reality. The questions that Ernie supposes I would ask are pretty accurate. I tend to view those things as abstractions that have a sort of shared, subjective reality, but not an objective reality.

(In David Brin's Uplift series there are, if I recall correctly, five levels of hyperspace and the highest (or is it the lowest) is described in Heaven's Reach as being inhabited by metaphors, memes and other linguistic constructs and conceptual abstractions. It did make for entertaining reading.)

Ernie describes "trinitarian theism", which has (as I hope I understand it), nothing to do with "The Trinity" of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the three universes he described. Naturalism then differs from theism by denying the existence of the third (spiritual) universe. Ernie claims that

In its extreme form, this becomes nihilism, in that it asserts that 'choice' and 'good' are merely subjective feelings we project onto the universe, without any objective reality.

This is a topic that I have been pondering. Richard Carrier, in his debate with Tom Wanchick, advanced "The Argument from Mind-Brain Dysteleology" in which he claims (among other things) that a functioning physical brain is necessary for consciousness and mental function. His further claim that this is not expected under theism did not strike me as entirely solid, but the important point here is that it does raise the question, if it is entirely physical process what room is left for choice? I am not, in fact, convinced we have choice, even if I have no choice (get it?) but to act as if I do. How would I know? So when Ernie expects me to define and defend a position on this, my tentative position is still naturalism, that conciousness and behavior and choice (or the illusion thereof) are all manifestations of purely physical processes. Positing a separate spiritual existence to explain them does make things easier, but it strikes me as being very much a sort of "God of the gaps" explanation when we attribute to something "unnatural" anything we cannot (yet) explain.

Along these same lines, there was an interesting post on Debunking Christianity a few weeks ago titled The Soul--A Rational Belief?. The claim is made that our person, our identity, is tied up with our physical brains, and that if you posit a separate spiritual consciousness, the burden of proof is on you to defend why the person would remain the same after the physical brain is dead. (The original is better than my short summary here. Sorry, it's gotten late.)

Where does that leave us? I would like Ernie to elaborate further on his statement about starting from philosophy, particularly how that relates to historical considerations. I can return to developing my eight (or so) supporting arguments. We can talk about choice (free will) and related implications for goodness and morality. Ernie could present arguments supporting the reality of a spiritual universe. Anything else?

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