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.

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