Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Enlightening Bug

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

Just as the holiday weekend was starting, Ernie posted Enlightenment?, his reponse to my Dark Forebodings posts, and followed up today with Of Truth and Trust. Tonight, I will try to address only the earlier post.

First, let me quickly address Ernie's challenge to explain the historical impact, ongoing relevance and positive social good associated with Christianity. I believe all of those can be explained without reference to or reliance on a deity, just as the corresponding effects of other religions can be so explained. That is not to say that each religion has had the same impact, relevence and social good as all the rest, just as various religions differ in the historical accuracy and internal coherency of their sacred writings and in the evil done by their adherents. While atheism does not have any sort of scripture as a basis for comparison, the social impacts (both good and bad) have similar explanations and the same could be said about various political ideologies.

Ernie questions whether I have

grasped my point that "justified belief" requires:

  1. honest examination of all relevant evidence
  2. a choice of paradigm to determine what is "honest" and "relevant"
  3. axiomatic, non-pardigmatic belief to tell us which paradigms are worth trusting

I think part of our problem is that you sometimes felt I was arguing against (I).Nothing could be further from the truth...

Using that framework I would have thought our difficulties were with (II), not (I). The time we spent developing a common epistemic framework was aimed at (II) and (III), and while we apparently have some work remaining there, I think it has been clear for awhile that that was something we needed to develop.

Contrary to Ernie's suggest that I "didn't seem to recognize that [my] selection of evidence itself depended upon a very specific paradigm (II), whose underlying assumptions [I] didn't seem to either be aware of, or consider worth questioning", this was something that I spent a great deal of time thinking about before leaving Christianity, as was the connection between trust and knowledge. The assumptions that I had not bothered questioning were those that I held while still a Christian. The difficulty that I have with subjective forms of evidence is not an unthinking dismissal of their worth, but a recognition of the low signal-to-noise ratio they possess. I would claim that neither objective nor subjective forms of evidence are sufficiently strong to warrant belief in Christianity (depending, as always, on exactly what specific assertions are wrapped up in that label).

Ernie suggests the existence of a love->trust->knowledge chain. I have no problem with the trust->knowledge link. The love->trust connection does not make sense to me in this context. For example, the trust I have in the process of empirically-tested, peer-reviewed science requires no love that I can recognize. Based on Ernie's query about my love of truth, I expect he might say that in science, scientists' love of truth is the basis for the trust I place in them. But the rules of the game of science work regardless of whether individuals love the truth or whether they simply love to win the game. "Love" then comes to mean nothing more than "motivation".

Thus, when I read "The best test of a community's viability is both what and how well they love", it seems almost tautological, in just the same way that "survival of the fittest" seems tautological. Communities motivated to do that which increases viability will generally be more viable. So, given that Christianity has survived for two millenia, we should not be surprised if the practices it advocates lead to viability. (Consider this contrast with Mithraism, a competitor to Christianity that did not survive.) We need to be careful about what conclusions we draw from that viability, and that is where I am concerned about Ernie's paradigm as I (poorly) understand it.

Ernie, if you want to try to explain the "love connection" again, feel free. So far it's not working.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Dark Forebodings, Continued

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

I ended Dark Forebodings a bit abruptly, and with little explanation of why Ernie's last post had led me to the point that it did. I will try to fill in those details here, briefly.

What I realized in a way that I had not realized before was the stress that Ernie seems to be placing on his personal experience and on his personal observations of others. Because of the weight he places on these experiences, he appears to be willing to overlook difficulties of other sorts. Historical inaccuracies, Biblical contradictions and evil done by the church are examples of such difficulties. Despite claiming to be able defend his position on a number of grounds including history, I get the impression that some of those are not necessarily so important to him personally. This does not make him dishonest or deceitful in any way; different people will weigh different kinds of evidence differently and defending one's position with additional kinds of evidence beyond what is found important personally is a reasonable approach.

My mistake was to misunderstand the kind of empirical evidence that Ernie finds most compelling and the comparative weight of that evidence.

Contrast these two statements. The first is from Ernie's last post:

The interrelatedness of the parts [of Ernie's Standard Model of Christianity] means that those aspects which are historically testable and/or empirically verifiable lend credence to those that are less, and ultimately to the whole.

The second comes from the comment Ernie left concerning Solomon's Temple, one of my earliest posts, a comment that was essentially the trigger for this conversation. In that comment, Ernie said:

While I find the Bible generally useful in an 'illustrative' way, I've become more concerned about finding 'testable propositions' that I can validate empirically, vs. attacking (or defending) historical accuracy.

At first glance, there might appear to be, if not a contradiction, at least a healthy tension between these two statements as they describe the importance of historical accuracy. But since the first one says "historically testable and/or empirically verifiable" that leaves open the possibility that empirical verification is substantially more important to Ernie. Likewise, the second one emphasizes the importance (to Ernie) of empirical validation over defending historical accuracy without going so far as to say that historical accuracy cannot be defended.

What then constitutes empirical verification? From Ernie's "short answer" it appears to be his own personal experience and the changed lives of others, as well as his assessment that "the most loving, courageous, and wise people I have ever known have ascribed all their virtue to Christ, and none to themselves."

We have touched on this at various times, but the only time either of us has really focused on it (that I recall) was Making Change, my response to the testimony that Ernie posted. This happened to occur in the middle of a string of posts by me, and there was essentially no follow-up as the conversation took a different turn.

Perhaps, then, we should turn the discussion towards Ernie's criteria for empirical verification. I, at least, have some comments about why I distrust the kinds of evidence that Ernie seems to be advocating.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Dark Forebodings

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

In The Weight of Justice I answered some questions that Ernie had posed, and in turn posed on of the questions back to him, basically asking for his fundamental reasons for belief. His response can be found at My "Standard Model" of Christianity.

I first want to clarify something that I think Ernie may have misunderstood. When I said that "belief in Christianity depends on the veracity of various historical assertions", I was not saying that those historical assertions are the entirety of Christian belief. Ernie provided good examples of other sorts of beliefs that are part of a Christian belief system, and I agree that those sorts of beliefs do compose most Christian belief systems. I would suggest, though, that some assertions are fairly central to Christianity; again, the resurrection would be an excellent example. Paul at least seemed to think so, since in I Corinthians 15:14 he says "and (X)if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain." So I am not convinced that my idea of what Christianity is is so different from Ernie's. I will return to some of the other elements of the belief system in a moment.

Ernie also said:

The embarrassing truth is that the reasons I (and I think most people) have for believing in Christianity are completely different than the ones Alan has been critiquing. And somehow this fact hasn't really surfaced until now. Doh!

I more or less agree with this. I think many people do have different reasons for believing than what I have been critiquing. I also think that those other reasons are insufficient to overcome the problems that I claim exist. I explored one of those other reasons back in Making Change when I discussed the evidentiary value of changed lives. (I guess that means I have been critiquing some of those other reasons as well.)

Ernie included in his Christian meta-model nine categories of beliefs. These are not necessarily exhaustive, but at least generally representative. Ernie then provides additional details for each category, building his "Standard Model of Christianity". His claim is that there is sufficient internal coherency, explanatory power, and historical and empirical evidence to prefer this theory to competing theories.

The Standard Model of physics fame is a very successful theory, even if it is incomplete. Ernie calls it "wildly successful" and he probably knows that better than I do. While I do not expect that Ernie meant to imply that his (or any) Standard Model of Christianity was similarly successful, I want to emphasize this dissimilarity. The Standard Model of physics is universally acknowledged (by physicists) because it is so successful; there is convergence in belief because of vast empirical evidence that supports the model and secondarily due to aesthetic considerations like symmetry and (comparative) simplicity. The great variety of beliefs all included under the umbrella term "Christianity", indeed the very fact that Ernie and I have to be careful to define what it is we mean when we say "Christianity" are indications that no corresponding convergence or success is associated with a Standard Model of Christianity, never mind that skeptics have generally not been convinced.

Ernie does state that the various components of his belief system are interrelated and that "those aspects which are historically testable and/or empirically verifiable lend credence to those that are less, and ultimately to the whole." In saying this, it sounds like he agrees with me that historical evidence is important to his belief system, but I expect he places greater weight on other "empirical" considerations, especially various experiential factors. For instance, back in The Universe, And Three Examples Ernie said "I trust the Bible because it explains the divinity I observe, not vice versa." In fact, back in Altimeters for Divinity he said, "... Alan appears to evaluate Christianity in historical terms, whereas I judge it on empirical grounds."

Ernie ends with a "short answer" to the question "why do I believe [this version of] Christianity". (Humorously, his short answer is longer than his [overview of his] long answer.) This short answer revolves around love and Ernie's belief that "self-giving love is the most real and the most powerful thing in the universe, and that ultimately everything else is contingent on that."

As I sat and reviewed what Ernie has said, both here and previously, I am now struck by just how far apart we are. Stunned, almost. I have sat here for at least half an hour trying to figure out how to move forward, obviously with little success.

Ernie, if you had stopped at your (short) long answer, I would have asked you to elaborate on how the various parts of your Standard Model of Christianity do interrelate and which parts contribute most strongly to the which others and to the whole. I might have asked you to try to describe how much inaccuracy and uncertainty you can tolerate in historical claims. I might have asked you to explain more fully your views on the Bible. Given your (longer) short answer, the answers that I anticipate bode ill for further progress.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Weight of Justice

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

In Round and Round, Ernie continues our meta-discussion that seems to be making some progress. He points out, quite correctly, that "our ultimate goal is 'to pursue the truth' rather than merely defend our initial positions". Back in Convergent Elocution, Ernie used the phrase "'win' Round One" and my intent in Where Did We Put Those Goalposts? in using similar terminology was merely to continue the analogy, not to suggest an adversarial stance of the sort that might normally be associated with "winning" and especially "fighting".

Still, I should thank Ernie for emphasizing that goal and apologize for beginning to lose sight of that. Sorry, Ernie.

Ernie summarized (surprise, surprise) what he now sees as my fundamental argument as Christianity and asked for some confirmation and elaboration:

Given that, I'd actually like to start over. In particular, I would like to take a more Socratic and less didactic approach, to make sure I understand Alan's questions before proposing answers. Let me start by summarizing what appears to be the fundamental reason Alan considers Christianity untenable:

  1. a reasonable conception of justice would require the subject of the belief to be believable, to be well-supported by both evidence and reason
  2. evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is insufficient to justify belief in its occurrence
  3. yes there are unanswered questions under most if not all theories.
  4. But then, none of those (scientific) theories posit eternal consequences to someone who does not believe the theory, [and]
  5. the unknowns or uncertainties generally do not revolve around the core assertions of the theory, not if the theory is widely supported.
  6. In the case of Christianity, I think the unanswered questions are too large, too important, so that those questions must be answered first before assenting (even provisionally) to the truth of theory.

So, my initial questions to Alan are:

  1. Is this in fact your fundamental argument against Christianity, such that resolving it one way or the other would ultimately lead to convergence?
  2. Would you agree that a coherent understanding of justice is central to your argument, or can you reformulate it to be independent of moral considerations?
  3. If there was no Biblical requirement for hell -- say (purely hypothetically) I could provide evidence that the concept of eternal suffering was a hermeneutical error -- would that dramatically change your argument?
  4. Would you accept a justification of Christianity that was consistent with the level of confidence we typically expect for:
    1. - scientific theories (e.g., quantum physics)
    2. - historical events (e.g. Apollo astronauts walked on the moon), and/or
    3. - personal relationships (e.g., my mother loves me)

And perhaps most important of all: do you see the relevance of my questions? If not, please tell me now, to ensure I don't lead you down another rathole.

(Sorry for the long quote, but it makes for easy referral to individual items by letter or number.>

Last question first: yes, I believe I understand the importance of Ernie's questions.

To answer (1) I would first answer (2) and (3). The importance of justice and of hell to my argument is to emphasize the implications of the deficiencies in the evidence for the truth of Christianity (which depends, of course, on just how you define Christianity). If there were no consequences whatsoever attached to belief or disbelief, well, there would not be much point in (dis)believing or in discussing the matter, let alone weighing the evidence. On the other hand, if the consequences are as extreme as many Christians believe, I do think (as I have stated numerous times before) that justice would require a stringent standard of evidence. But even if Ernie proposes a system of justice that avoids this problem, that would not affect the strength of the actual evidence. So, while I am curious about how Ernie sees the hell-and-justice tension resolved, I suspect it would be better to avoid that path for now and focus instead on the evidentiary issues.

I should note that the problem of hell was important to me personally in the process of "losing faith" for essentially the reasons I have noted, as I have stated several times. I do not want to minimize its importance in that respect. I just do not think it is the best way forward from this point for our discussion.

Removing (a) from Ernie's summary of my argument leaves the rest essentially intact. Of course, only (b) really addresses evidence; (c) through (f) are more or less commentary. Other lines of evidence we could examine include the accuracy, honesty and authenticity of the Bible or the distinctiveness of the Church through history (or lack thereof). These are topics that have at least been mentioned previously that also have a significant evidentiary component (in my opinion, anyway). Ernie can suggest others, of course.

In short, my answers to (1), (2) and (3) are "no", "no" and "not really". To (4), I would have to say that the level of confidence I would accept would depend on the expected consequences of (dis)belief. There is something of a circular relationship there because the expected consequences depend on what I believe in the first place, but not in the most straightforward way. I do not currently believe in eternal consequences for (dis)belief, but based on that belief I do not have a correspondingly low standard of evidence. Rather, I suppose you could say I have a meta-belief that assertions vastly different from my current beliefs require correspondingly strong evidence, and eternal damnation is vastly different from "death is the end".

If you flip that around and say (as I did when I still believed) that "I currently believe in eternal damnation for disbelief, so the standard of evidence required for me to give up my belief is very high", I would quite understand your position. It is a very difficult change to contemplate. But I hope people will understand if I claim that the psychological tension that this creates is part of the harm done by Christian belief.

Getting back to answering (4), the justification of Christianity that I require will be rather high, similar to what is expected for scientific theories or well-established historical events. The comparison to personal relationships fails for me. Perhaps I am missing Ernie's point, but as I see it, belief in Christianity depends on the veracity of various historical assertions and I fail to see how that compares to the knowledge we have about our personal relationships.

Ernie, how would you answer (4)? How would you state your fundamental reasons for belief? (I think I have an idea from what has gone before, but repeating or verifying would be helpful at this point.)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Where Did We Put Those Goalposts?

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

I guess Ernie and I are "going meta" again so we can figure out what it is we are talking about. In Convergent Elocution, Ernie has described what he now perceives as the difference between what he thought we were talking about and what I thought we were talking about. I assume he knows what he thought we were talking about; his guess of what I thought we were talking about is reasonably close. Hopefully this will help us make more progress.

Ernie said:

... I had been assuming that Alan was implicitly trying to prove the following syllogism:

  1. Meaningful Christianity makes a set of strict assertions, which I've labeled Classical Orthodoxy
  2. Classical Orthodoxy is demonstrably false, due to both logical and empirical results
  3. Therefore, Christianity is either untrue or meaningless

The conclusion would follow from the premises, but premise (I) is too strong because there may be meaningful constructions of Christianity that do not make the assertions that I have attacked. While many Christians believe in the truth of those assertions, Ernie clearly believes there is an alternate construction that will survive my arguments (at least those that have been presented thus far). Ernie seems to be approaching this debate in a staged approach, where he could "win round one" by presenting such an alternate construction.

I have agreed that such an alternate construction may exist, although it has not yet been demonstrated. But that would be only Round One, and this is not a one round "fight". When I suggested that there would be additional hurdles for Ernie to overcome, I was looking farther ahead. In my mind, it was all part of one larger picture, not a round-by-round sort of thing. The overall goal that I pictured Ernie to be pursuing was something like "You should believe what I believe" or perhaps "I am justified in believing what I believe."

Ernie quoted something he had written earlier, where he described his understanding of the terms of victory. I am rather certain that I did not respond directly to that. Partly, this is because I do not agree with the terms as I understand (understood) them, and one major point of disagreement is what I have just described. That is, his terms seem to imply that so long as he can address my arguments thus far, he wins, where I see that as being just a single step in a larger process.

Ernie also proposed another standard of proof for round one, and as long as we are clear that this is only a step in a larger process, I think it is a step in the right direction. As he describes it:

My task, as I see it, is to develop a coherent "theory of divinity" that:

  1. Articulates a coherent understanding of justice and the afterlife
  2. Explains the historical successes -- and failures -- of Christian communities to create social good
  3. Elucidates an actionable hermeneutic for interpreting the Bible that is consistent with historical and textual evidence
  4. Meaningfully relates the resurrection of Christ with personal salvation
  5. And despite all that, is still fully consistent with historic Christian orthodoxy

Regarding (A), I want to try to make clear again why I brought up the problem of hell so early in our discussion. There are many other reasons why I find belief in Christianity to be untenable. When the consequences of disbelief are eternal, I think a reasonable conception of justice would require the subject of the belief to be believable, to be well-supported by both evidence and reason. But even if the consequences were not eternal or if there were some reasonable conception of justice that demanded eternal consequences, the other reasons for disbelief remain and still need to be addressed. I understand that I may not have listed all of these other reasons and so cannot expect Ernie to respond to them or even account for them in the above standard of proof, but neither do I want Ernie to believe that addressing just those points would be particularly moving for me. As just one example, I believe that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is insufficient to justify belief in its occurrence. Of (A) through (E) above, (D) assumes it and only (C) even touches on supporting it and that only indirectly.

In closing, let me quickly comment on this question: "But, do you know any theory that doesn't have unanswered questions?". Well, there may be one or two out there, but generally, yes there are unanswered questions under most if not all theories. But then, none of those (scientific) theories posit eternal consequences to someone who does not believe the theory, and the unknowns or uncertainties generally do not revolve around the core assertions of the theory, not if the theory is widely supported. In the case of Christianity, I think the unanswered questions are too large, too important, so that those questions must be answered first before assenting (even provisionally) to the truth of theory.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Results for Carrier-Wanchick Debate

The judges' final assessments of the Carrier-Wanchick debate are finally available.

Debates are interesting beasts. In this case, the restrictions on the length of each entry led especially on Carrier's part to a rather dense presentation as he sought to include as many arguments as possible. I found Carrier's Athestic Cosmological Argument and Argument from Nonlocality unconvincing; he would have done better to drop them and use his word budget elsewhere. Generally I agreed most closely with Jeffrey Jay Lowder's evaluation, including his comments about the difference between his scores according to the rules of the debate vs. his assessment as a philosopher. My impression of the debate as whole was that neither participant was particularly persuasive, though for different reasons. Carrier was aiming to win the debate according to the rules of the debate and sacrificed his usual clarity in the process; according to comments he made at IIDB, this was intentional. Wanchick, on the other hand, had weaker arguments but wrote a bit more accessibly.

Reaching Escape Velocity

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief. It has absolutely nothing to do with real escape velocities, so if you are looking for help on your physics homework, you are not going to find it here.

This will hopefully be a quick response to Reviving the Classics, in which Ernie responds to my last post, Am I Fundamentally Mistaken? I Think Not. I claimed that I have not been addressing only Fundamentalist Christianity, and I compared my earlier (and very short) summary of what I had described as the common elements of most brands of Christianity with his recent description of Orthodox Christianity. I further claimed that our two descriptions were not so far apart that he could call his a description of orthodoxy while calling mine a description of fundamentalism.

This is not to say that our descriptions were identical; I did not and would not claim that. Since the beginning of our dialog, there have been hints that his personal version of Christianity differs in at least subtle ways from orthodoxy, but then, after first meeting Ernie as a grad student who rode a skateboard around campus while carrying a briefcase, complete orthodoxy would be surprising to me.

Ernie posed three questions to close his post:

  • Do you accept Classical Orthodoxy as accurately representing your view of Christianity?
  • Do you accept my Relativistic Orthodoxy as also being reasonably consistent with historical orthodoxy?
  • Do you see how the differences between them at least offer the hope of addressing your concerns?

To answer the first question, there are a wide variety of beliefs held by different people under the umbrella term of "Christianity". It seems reasonable to choose a representative subset of those beliefs to, well, represent Christianity and Classical Orthodoxy fills that role pretty well. Is that my view of Christianity? I am not sure I have a single view of Christianity because it is important for my purposes to recognize the variety of Christian beliefs. I suppose that if I met somebody who called himself a Christian, those are the sorts of beliefs I would expect from him until I learned otherwise.

To the limited degree that I understand Ernie's "Relativistic Orthodoxy", yes, I can accept it as being reasonably consistent with Classical Orthodoxy. And I understand that changes to one set of beliefs or assertions may allow the resulting new set of beliefs to escape the criticisms of the old set. (This is trivially true if the changes completely replace the old beliefs.) I am not sure yet if Ernie's changes are sufficient to escape.

There remain several issues. First, Ernie can hardly expect me to evaluate his beliefs until he tells me what they are. He has begun to do this, but not in sufficient detail for me to decide how my concerns might be addressed. Answering more of the questions I posed in Psi-lent Night would be one place to start. In addition to addressing my concerns about Classical Orthodoxy, Relativistic Orthodoxy should not raise comparable new concerns. Finally, Ernie needs to provide some positive evidence for the truth of his beliefs beyond simply saying "if this were true it would solve your problems".

In addition to the questions I have already posed, I think a discussion of these two statements would be fruitful:

3a. Jesus death and resurrection enable us to meaningfully appropriate our salvation

4a. The Bible is a faithful and authoritative record of humanity's encounter with the divine

Finally, going back to the idea of orthodoxy, I wanted to bring up the approach taken by Michael Martin in his book The Case Against Christianity which I recently read. To address the problem posed by the variety of Christian beliefs, he looked at the common elements of the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, the three oldest known sets of credal statements. I thought that was a reasonably good approach to take for a book like that. In this setting though, that is for this dialog, Ernie's Creed is the one we need to use.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Am I Fundamentally Mistaken? I Think Not.

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

In my most recent to our ongoing discussion, Psi-lent Night, I responded to Ernie's previous post in which he describes his beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality, and also attempted to answer some questions he had posed to me. Ernie's response, Fundamentalish Theory, takes a rather large detour to react to an analogy I presented in my attempt to explain how something can be objective but not universal (properties which I think may describe morality). While Ernie feels my example sheds light on why we might be talking past each other, I am afraid I think he has missed the mark. I will explain.

First, let me encourage people not to read too much into the analogy, as its purpose again was simply to shed some light on how something could be objective but not universal, and it was not necessarily my intention to claim even that Newtonian mechanics is in the same category as moral standards. Having said that, I think the appropriate categorizations are closer than Ernie implies, because I was certainly not intending the phrase "objective but not universal" to apply to the discipline of ethics or morality, but to moral standards or ethical theories, if you will. I have been thinking on this and have some more to say about it, but I need first to respond to the rest of Ernie's post.

Ernie proposes an alternative analogy that contrasts chemistry and physics, and I think that analogy is also consistent with idea I am trying to communicate. In chemistry we use various abstractions to simplify deeper, more complicated concepts and those abstractions are useful (and objective) in chemical systems, even though they are insufficient to describe all physical systems. I do not, however, see the important relationship between chemistry and physics in this analogy as "contingent" but as "abstracted" or "simplified". Likewise, the epistemic category that we are dealing with (according to Ernie's hierarchy) is the level of theory, not discipline. That is, Ernie's example describes how chemistry theories are built upon physics theories. That may very well mean that chemistry itself is contingent on physics, but the level of theory is where the action is in the analogy and also in the original issue, that of ethics and morality.

Based on what Ernie wrote, I am not sure if he would agree with that, but of greater importance is how Ernie continued, where he suggests that I am incorrectly identifying Christian Fundamentalism with Christianity. I disagree.

Ernie offers this summary of Christian orthodoxy:

  1. There exists a singular principle of divinity responsible for all aspects of observable reality ("There is One God.")
  2. The character of that divinity was fully manifested in the historical person of Jesus Christ ("Jesus is Lord.")
  3. The entire Christian movement originated when numerous individuals encountered a resurrected Jesus ("He Lives.")

But four months ago I offered an (even briefer) summary of Christian orthodoxy, and I quoted it two months ago:

  1. Monotheistic, but...
  2. Jesus is/was God
  3. Jesus death and resurrection enable our salvation
  4. Bible is revealed or inspired scripture

(As I noted when I originally wrote this, I purposefully excluded the word "inerrant" from the last item.)

Is that really so different from Ernie's summary that he would claim his summary describes all of Orthodox Christianity while mine describes only Fundamentalist Christianity? While some of my blog entries have focused on problems with claims of inerrancy that would present less difficulty to non-fundamentalists, I think my approach to this discussion has largely avoided being overly specific in that way. Possibly Ernie could claim that my conception of hell is overly restrictive, but while there are alternative conceptions of hell that may not be susceptible to the arguments I have presented, I hardly think that eternal damnation of some sort is a fringe belief but rather by far the most commonly held view by orthodox Christians.

Ernie returns to the general area of our last few posts in his seventh section, "Contingent Reality". Unfortunately, contrary to Ernie's perception, and despite my statement that there may be objective descriptions of morality, this is not quite the same (to me) as saying that "moral systems" are a separate class of objective reality, at least not any more than "chemical systems" are a separate class of objective reality. Chemical systems are physical systems, viewed using the abstractions of chemical theories. Likewise, moral systems need not be anything other than (much more complicated) views of physical systems. Now, that does mean that the moral systems would be contingent on the physical systems that underly them, at least remotely.

As to whether physics is contingent on math or both are contingent on something else, I neither know nor believe one or the other.

To wrap up, Ernie presents his belief that mathematical, physical and moral systems are all contingent on what he had labeled "Omega" or "divinity", which corresponds to God, but which by itself only leads to a sort of deism. I am not a deist, but neither will I argue against deism. As Ernie hopes, I agree that working on (II) and (III) from his summary of Christian Orthodoxy would be a much better focus. In fact, in the last paragraph of Cheating a Dread Course I repeated my earlier requests that we address what Ernie claims as support for these more specific claims.

Ernie listed some assertions that may be relevant way back in A Post-Modern Faith in Jesus, his first post in what became this dialog. Whether he starts again with those or something else, I look forward to his defense of Christianity specifically.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

"Fairly" Good Quote

Blogging has been a bit sparse for me recently, but I did come across a quote last week in the sidebar of Pharyngula that I thought I would mention. This relates back to my ongoing discussion with Ernie, back when we were talking about hell. At the time, there was some question over whether we should expect God to be fair, and further which definition of the word "fair" we were talking about. As I said at the time, fairness in the sense of impartiality was not an issue, but fairness in the sense of justice was. Anyway, this quote captures the essence of the argument pretty well.

Is God fair? The Christians say that God damns forever anyone who is skeptical about truth of bunkistic religion as revealed unto the holy haranguers. What this means is that a God, if any, punishes a man for using his reason. If there is a God in existence, reasons should be available for his existence. Assuming that such a precious thing as a man's eternal future depends on his belief in a God, then the materials for that belief should be overwhelming and not at all doubtful. Yet here is a man whose reason makes it impossible for him to believe in a God. He sees no evidence of such an entity. He finds all the arguments weak and worthless. He doubts and he denies. Then is a God fair in visiting upon such a skeptic the penalty for his inevitable intellectual attitude? The intelligent man refuses to believe fairy tales. Can a God blame him? If so, then a God is not as fair as an ordinarily decent man. And fairness, we think, is more important than piety.

E. Haldeman-Julius, "The Meaning Of Atheism"