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.

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