Saturday, May 26, 2007

New Directions

As my online dialog with Ernie slowly winds down, I have been taking some time to think about what I want to do with this blog, if anything. When I started twenty months ago, my intended purpose was to explain my decision to leave Christianity. After only a short time, most of my effort was diverted into my discussion with Ernie, and though parts of my original explanatory intent peeked through, for the most part I think my original purpose in blogging was unfulfilled. Somewhat ironically, that was the source of some frustration for Ernie, who stated at various times throughout the discussion that he did not really understand the essence of my objections to Christianity.

So perhaps the time has come to return to my original purpose, now with the benefit of additional time of thought and study. As I look back at my earliest posts, I think perhaps I started too quickly with details, without establishing a framework into which the details could be placed, and without a good plan for how to build from a beginning to an end. Should I be writing down a personal history, a sort of spiritual travelogue that includes some of the personal events that led me to ask questions and search for answers? Or should I seek to present what I feel are the best reasons for disbelief, regardless of the path that brought me here? What forms of Christianity should I address? What goals am I reaching toward, what good would such an explanation (hopefully) produce? Is it even worth my time, given my glacially slow writing pace? Can I sustain the effort long enough to produce a quality result, or will I end up leaving things hanging? (That happened too much with Ernie, for instance.)

I am still trying to work out an approach that I think might work, and I do not know yet what that will look like, or when I might be ready.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Drawing to a Close

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

As we draw our diablogue to a close, it is time for some reflection on where we have been. Coming so closely on the heels of similar reflections that led to a change in format a few weeks ago, some parts of this may be repetitive.

First, some statistics. This dialog started in toward the end of 2005, triggered by a comment Ernie left after my post on Solomon's Temple, followed by what I would consider the first posts that were explicitly intended as part of an ongoing conversation, Testable Propositions and A Post-Modern Faith in Jesus. Since then, I have written 68 posts (plus this one) and Ernie has written 66 (if I counted right). That works out to almost 3/4 MB of text, maybe 100,000 words.

As I look back on some of the earliest posts, I wonder if we really got very far, because some of the same issues we have discussed recently were introduced then. Of course, along the way, we have travelled here and there, discussing hell, epistemology, morality and touches of historical and modern Christianity. Obviously we have not come to any major agreement, but perhaps that is not so surprising.

For my part, despite the lack of resolution, this dialog has been helpful in several ways. It has forced me to consider more carefully my reasoning on various issues, especially regarding those issues that are treated in very different ways by different branches of Christian thought. It has driven me to study philosophical subjects more deeply and particularly develop a deeper understanding of ethics and morality. And I hope (perhaps unreasonably) that I have improved my ability to express myself and to engage in a thoughtful yet perhaps somewhat adversarial discussion.

But do I really understand Ernie any better? I suppose I do, yet what I understand does not move me, intellectually speaking. The primary evidence that seems to be important to Ernie apparently relates to changed lives on both small and large scales. That is, that Christianity has (in his view) produced and continues to produce positive changes that indicate that Christianity must be on to something. My response has been, over and over, that this type of evidence is problematic in several ways: that false beliefs can have (some) benefits, that other belief systems also produce positive changes, that attribution of the large-scale changes to Christianity specifically is difficult, that any weighing of the evidence must also include the evil that can be attributed to Christianity, and that the moral contributions can exist apart from the metaphysical beliefs so that other kinds of evidence must be adduced to support those other claims.

If there have been other lines of evidence offered, I do not recall them now. I think Ernie has made some other types of claims, but (perhaps due to the conversational trajectory) has not defended them. Similarly, I have not addressed or supported all of the issues that lead me to disbelief.

I might summarize my major themes as: the disproportionality of the evidence for Christianity to the consequences for disbelief and sufficiency of non-theistic explanations for the evidence that Ernie claims support Christianity. While I have advanced other lines of evidence external to our dialog, I think most of my half of this conversation has fallen into those two grand themes.

I respect Ernie for his recognition of some of the flaws of modern Christianity and his intention to improve it. There is a great deal of room for improvement in this world, and while may disagree with Ernie on a number of points, I appreciate his willingness to engage for so long in an attempt improve our small part of it.

Thanks, Ernie.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Penultimate Thoughts

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief, a dialog that is drawing to a close.

I promised to Ernie that I would write up some reflections on how our dialog has proceeded over the past eighteen months. This is not it.

I have wanted to hear from Ernie more details about his views of the Bible. In our last chat, when I asked about this, Ernie compared the Bible to lab notebooks, written by people "performing real experiments on 'moral reality'" who got "the right answer" even if the standards of evidence are below today's standards. He further compared the process by which scripture was copied and transmitted to the peer review and citation processes of modern science. His claim appears to be that we therefore have comparable reasons to trust scripture as we have for trusting the results of modern science.

I do not agree.

First, when Ernie admits that the standards of evidence were below today's standards but yet claims that they got the right answer, on what basis can he say that they got the right answer? Have there been modern experiments performed according to our modern standards of evidence that verify the Bible's answers about questions of moral reality? If these experiments have not been performed, how can Ernie claim that the Bible contains the right answers? As far as I can tell, Ernie seems to be basing this claim on the success of Western civilization, despite the various problems that exist in tracing this success to the moral claims of the Bible. I am not aware of any modern experiments that would allow Ernie to claim that (according to modern standards of evidence) that the Bible contains the correct answers to questions of morality. In fact, the Bible contains moral instructions that have been discarded by modern believers. This is most clear when examining the moral laws of the Old Testament, but I believe is also true of parts of the New Testament (to varying degrees among different groups).

Second, the Bible contains more than just moral instruction. It also makes claims about the existence and nature of God, of Jesus, of heaven and hell, and so on. Does Ernie claim that these were experimentally verified? How could these experiments be reproduced today? If they cannot, the modern standards of evidence cannot be met.

Third, the process by which scripture was transmitted and eventually canonized has only a vague similarity to the peer review process in science today. Ernie says that "People made claims, others wrote them down, still others decided they were worth copying and transmitting, etc." Without knowing the standards by which such decisions were made, this becomes little more than a popularity contest. An important part of the peer review process today is evaluation of a paper against the very standards of evidence that are important to modern science. Without those standards, standards that Ernie admits were lacking for the Bible, the peer review process loses much of its force.

Now, there were some standards that were supposedly used for the eventual canonization of the New Testament: apostolic authorship, correct doctrine and widespread use. As I have written recently, modern scholarship places considerable doubt on the correct assignment of authorship to a large number of New Testament books. The standard of correct doctrine assumes that there is an independent source of correct doctrine to which the books and letters could be compared. What was that source? Is it still available today? Without knowing what this source was, and without having good reasons to trust in its accuracy, the criteria of doctrinal correctness is in great danger of reducing to question begging. Widespread usage is also problematic. Perhaps if we had good reason to believe that widespread usage was indicative of widespread truth-testing, this might hold some weight. But since some popular books were not included on the basis of doctrinal incorrectness, we have good reasons to believe that popularity was not considered to be equivalent to wide-spread truth testing. (Note too that the doctrinal issues involved often revolved around Jesus' divinity and related concepts that are not open to experimental verification.)

The similarity between the development of the Bible and modern scientific progress is terribly shallow. No matter how many smiley-faces Ernie uses while comparing them, the differences that remain are substantial and important.

As our chat progressed, I claimed that Christianity has had trouble converging. Ernie claims that Christianity is converging, but slowly. He gave as an example of "numerous hard-won convergence points that have enormously broad appeal" the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization that resulted in the Lausanne Covenant. I found this example interesting for several reasons. First, this was a meeting of evangelical Christians, so it already illustrates one of the fracture lines that divides Christians in the world today. Now, Ernie did not claim that this was an example of universal convergence, just "broad appeal", but still this is an important point. The second point of interest is that the Lausanne Covenant affirms "the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice." As far as I can tell, while this statement may have broad appeal, it contradicts Ernie's own stated views about the nature of the Bible. The Lausanne statement does not describe a lab notebook written by fallible humans; it describes authoritive, inerrant revelation.

Ernie and I also discussed Christianity, atheism and secular humanism and their roles in societies. Here there are a few things that I need to clear up. Ernie said, "So, I get the feeling that you're attacking me from both sides. Either you say it doesn't matter that Christianity works, because its false; or else you say it must not work, since its false." This accusation has some merit and I need to answer. I think Ernie's description is misleading because it is not a question of purely working or purely not working. I have tried to acknowledge that there may be some useful contributions of Christianity (so it "works" to some degree). I have also stated multiple times that false beliefs can have some beneficial effects (so again, it "works" to some degree). But I have further claimed that, because it is false (or contains false elements), it will not work as well as belief systems that exclude the false elements. It is possible that this last statement is actually incorrect. Some people have argued that such false beliefs play important roles in social cohesion. While I have to acknowledge that possibility, I also believe that we have good reasons to search for alternatives that do not involve such false beliefs.

Ernie was correct to point out that, to date, there have been no examples of persistently successful societies that lacked some sort of shared religious tradition. Recent trends in this direction, such as in Europe and Japan, are neither pure examples nor have they demonstrated long-term success. It may also be true that secular humanism by itself will prove insufficient to bind a society together. As I just stated in the last paragraph, it may even be true that certain kinds of false belief are inevitable and/or necessary. That possibility raises some interesting questions about how those who recognize the beliefs as false should proceed. But it does not make the beliefs true. Absent other considerations, I would accept societal success as evidence that the beliefs reflect some sort of truth, if perhaps only indirectly. But when we have other reasons to believe that the beliefs are false, and when we also have reasons to expect the false beliefs to have beneficial effects, societal success simply does not carry sufficient evidentiary weight. I will also point out again that societal success (that is, persistence) does not necessarily imply individual well-being.

I had hoped to draw some parallels between this particular interaction and our larger dialog in order to illustrate what I think were some of our larger issues. At this point, I need to wrap this up, so I will simply take care of that in my coming reflections on our dialog.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Chatalogue: End Game

Ernie and I held our third chat last night, a day earlier than planned due to some scheduling conflicts. I will be preparing some commentary this weekend; for now, here is the transcript:

E: G'day.

A: Howdy

E: Thanks for being flexible.

A: No problem

E: Sounds like Wednesday was better for both of us.

E: So, any thoughts about how you'd like the conversation to go this time?

E: [since you seem less than thrilled by last week's trajectory :-]


A: Well, I wonder if you understand my concerns about what kind of conclusions we'd be able to reach.

A: And I am also curious about what flaws you feel exist in Alonzo's descriptions of how DU solves various problems of morality

E: I can see it; I'm not sure I "understand" it.

E: That did raise an intriguing possibility.

E: I wonder if this might actually be more "constructive" if we focused on less on trying to construct a common understanding, but actually defend opposing viewpoints.

E: That is, get adversarial (in content and structure, though hopefully not tone!)

A: Interesting. It seems like we just decided to "restart" with less adversiality (is that a word?)

E: Yeah, but every time I try to build something, you seem underwhelmed by the result.

A: That's true.

E: Plus, it seems like you're more interested in the "adversarial" results (or lack thereof) than in anything mutual we've come up with.

E: So, rather than backing into being adversarial, maybe it would actually be more fun for both of us to tackle it (and each other) head on!

A: Well, I thought our first week's chat was helpful, but last week we kind of settled back into the same groove we had already tried to cover earlier.

E: I concede that I easily get stuck in lecture mode.

E: Perhaps debate mode would be more mutual.

A: Maybe.

E: Unless you have a lecture prepared, for the sake of equal time? :-P

A: :-)

E: Do you have any claims you'd like to articulate and/or defend?

A: Grrr... trying again.

E: or even an inquisition you'd like to put me through...

A: Let me back up, and say first, that I am not sure that further discussion on morality seems likely to be that helpful.

A: The reasons I believe (or don't believe) what I do (or don't) are not grounded on what provides a basis for morality, so even if you could show that there were no foundation for morality without a benevelent moral purpose,

A: I am not sure it would matter that much to me. (Not that I believe that is true.)

E: Or, put another way, your commitment to "truth" is actually foundational, not merely instrumental to morality.


A: Hmm, I am not sure I would have put it that way. Just stop at "commitment to truth is foundational".

E: Okay, fair enough.

A: Does that make sense?

E: It does, though it somewhat conflicts with an operational/consequential definition of "truth."

A: Why?

E: What is the basis of your commitment to truth? In terms of what do you define truth?

E: My metric has been 'The truth is what works' (even if "what works is not the truth").

A: When you say, "the truth is what works", I would take that to mean that the truth is what lets us make accurate predictions about the world.

E: sure

A: There need be no moral judgement attached to those predictions.

E: Sure.

A: So I still don't see where the conflict is.

E: But, it gets back to what you mean by "truth is foundational".

E: Not a strong conflict, just a request for clarification.

E: Since truth about human beings is difficult to evaluate apart from moral considerations (though not impossible).

A: Why?

E: Well, in my worldview, all human action has a moral dimension.

E: It is related to purpose and happiness, at the very least.

A: So, you assume a moral dimension, so it then becomes difficult to interpret people without it.

E: Right.

E: To me, it would be like trying to interpret subatomic particles while ignoring charge.

A: That kind of seems like question begging.

E: Again, my point was that it is *hard* for me to understand how you define truth.

E: So, how about you show me?

A: The reason that we attribute charge to subatomic particles is that we observe particular kinds of behaviors of those particles.

E: RIght, we interpret their behavior as being due to charges we label as "positive" and "negative."

A: I do think that it is sensible to talk about morality because we can observe various things about how people behave.

E: As I interpret human behavior in terms of positive and negative attributes I label "love" and "hate."

A: Sure. I hope I have communicated that I do actually think that there is a basis for making moral statements.

E: Right.

E: But, getting back to the epistemic question.

E: Our original definition started with assertion that 'truth is good'.


E: If we don't assume that, we need a slightly different starting point.

A: I still agree with that, but I don't see us making any real progress from that starting point.

E: Fair enough.

E: So, can you propose an alternate starting point?

E: [new link, same article;]

A: Well, I am still curious, in a non-adversarial way, in hearing you further explain you views on scripture and why it's "good"

E: I think of Scripture much like I think of Newton's Laws.

E: More precisely, like Millikan's Notebook.


E: The standards of evidence are far below what we'd accept today.

E: But, they got the right answer. :-)

E: Which implies to me that they were in fact performing real experiments on "moral reality", and obtaining useful data.

E: And thus, by incorporating their data into my models I achieve better predictive power than if I ignore or discount that data.

E: Did you drop off?

A: Nope, just listening.

E: [i got a weird message saying you signed on, which is why I asked].

A: Weird.

E: anyway, that's the essence of my argument

A: So, scripture could be reproduced by anyone able to perform the same experiments?

A: (Not in exact detail of course)

E: Sure, to the limits of historical correspondence?

E: .

E: That's what most of the charismatic movement is about, after all. :-)

E: Back to the second goalpost: most of it is due to a small group of old guys from a particular ethnic background wandering in the desert, coming back with paradigm-shattering reports that are difficult to reproduce, but validated by their peers, and prove to have extraordinary explanatory power.

E: Because of that, I tend to believe that their experiences were genuine, and their reports trustworthy -- despite the fact that many counterfeits have presented with similar claims.


A: In what ways were the reports validated by their peers?

E: The process of scripture formation was originally organic, and only later hierarchical.

E: People made claims, others wrote them down, still others decided they were worth copying and transmitting, etc.

E: Not entirely unlike our Citation Rank process for scientific papers.

A: Do you have reason to believe those other people actually selected papers for their actual truth value rather than some other characteristic?

E: Do we ever? :-)

E: Peer-review is only as good as the quality of the peers.

A: Yes, but today we know something about the quality of the peers.

E: And the metrics for selection are more complicated than one might think.

E: Only for fields where we're already expects, unfortunately.

A: Then, we have some information, but it is not necessarily that positive.

E: Otherwise, we're simply trusting in the institutions.

E: :-)

E: That's why my espitemic model makes explicit claims about the nature of communities, and relational trust.

A: I think the scientific process is very much one in which arguments from authority are not supposed to be powerful.

E: (which makes it hard to separate from morality :-P )

E: Since when? :-)

E: What that really means is that scientists don't accept arguments from authorities *outside their paradigm*

E: Within a paradigm, we are continually citing authorities.

E: The Particle Data Book, Newton's Laws, the Standard Model, etc.

A: They accept (not always immediately, but eventually) arguments that are consistent with the data.

A: And they are judged by that standard.


E: Again, within a given paradigm.

A: I don't think a similar standard was used for scripture.

E: How can it not be?

E: It was a different paradigm, but obviously people had one.

A: Why should we trust that paradigm?

E: Again, why do we trust any paradigm?

E: More importantly, in which -ways- do we trust the results of those paradigms?

A: We trust science because it works. It has produced results. These results have substantial agreement.

A: There is not a comparable level agreement amongst Christians about doctrine.

E: Can you quantify that statement?

E: Or does it depend entirely on how you define various terms?

A: I think in the entire history of Christianity, there have been and continue to be major disagreements about what it means.

E: As opposed to the history of science? :-)

A: Science converges.

A: Christianity hasn't.

E: Last I checked, the vast majority of Christians still hold to the Nicene Creed.

E: Science tends to discard ideas far faster :-)

E: Believe it or not, Christianity also converges.

E: One fascinating example for me is the charismatic movement.

A: Different pockets converge to different places.

E: Again, how is that different than science?

E: Before the 1960's, the charismatic movement was a fringe Pentecostal set of denominations.

E: In the 1980's, it was enormously controversial.

E: Now, it is more-or-less accepted as normal and healthy by virtually every denomination.

E: There's numerous hard-won convergence points that have enormously broad appeal, e.g.

A: I am not so sure about that, actually. Maybe by some people within every denomination, but not by everybody. It's just another way to split.

E: You miss the point.

E: In the 1980's, there were a huge number of ideologues talking about how charismatic gifts were of the devil, and how anyone who practiced them should be cast out of the church.

E: Now, it is only a handful of relics who would make such claims, and most of those do so quietly -- for they know they'd alienate a bunch of their supporters and colleagues.

E: It is like believing in a Steady State universe -- only those with a huge ego investment in that belief persist in it.


E: To be sure, we don't converge on *everything* -- but then again, neither does science.

E: But, the church has in fact converged on a great many things, at least to the "majority extent" -- which is all we get out of science, either. :-)

E: We just have an annoying tendency to amplify our controversies.

E: Still there?

A: Yes and no...

E: I get the impression that you feel any of the "common beliefs" of Christianity (and western culture) are "obvious", so Christians shouldn't get any of the credit for having discovered and converged upon them.

A: Some were also discovered by non-Christians. Some were not discovered by all Christians. Some were wrong. The signal is not strong enough to overcome the disconfirming evidence.

A: (Or, sometimes, significant lack of evidence.)

E: Which brings us back to whether you think the success of Western culture and morality is a notable discovery, on par with Newton's Laws.

A: I don't think it was that concentrated and unique.

E: I've never claimed that Christians had all truth, or were always correct; just that it is the most successful paradigm, among other less succesful ones.

E: Further, need I point out that while Christian societies have had mixed results, atheistic ones have been uniformly disastrous?

A: They have had other problems.

E: Other than moral ones?

A: It may be true that Christianity and other religions play a beneficial role while being false. That's something I'm still chewing on.

E: So, I get the feeling that you're attacking me from both sides.

E: Either you say it doesn't matter that Christianity works, because its false; or else you say it must not work, since its false.

A: It's not just Christianity that works in that sense though.

E: (wait, that came out wrong)

E: What sense must it work? Can you come up with a consistent standard, that you'd be willing to judge atheism against?

A: Atheism entails too little.

A: People with vastly different views can still be atheists.

E: Well, do you have a foundational alternative to Christianity you'd propose building society around instead?

A: Secular humanism

E: Or are you just tearing it down because you think it deserves to die, and you really don't care about the consequences?

E: Secular humanism is almost as vague as atheism.

A: Stalin and Pol Pot, while atheists, were not secular humanists.

E: Okay, sure.

E: But they at least managed to run a country.

E: There is zero evidence that secular humanists can actually manage to maintain social cohesion while being true to their values.

E: At least that I've seen -- I'd be willing to be confronted by facts I've overlooked.

A: How would you describe Japan and Scandinavia? They are among the most "atheistic" countries in existence right now.

E: Huh?

E: Sure, if you consider Confucianism atheism, but that grossly mistates the case.

E: Japan is bound together by far more than secular humanism, as you well know.

E: And Norway is hardly secular in the strict sense, even if people are skeptical or organized religion.


E: "Norwegian religious expression is largely private; whereas most individuals state that religion is important to them, this is not generally expressed through active religious participation in organized communities."

E: Besides, you do realize that all secularized societies are slowly committed genetic suicide, right?

A: And the religious societies are doing so much better?

E: Well, yeah.

E: At least by that crude metric, the world population is still increasing.

A: But, is increasing population a good thing at this point?

E: Compared to the alternative?

A: yes

E: Look, any society that fails to have children is eliminating itself from history.

E: I would consider that counter-productive.

E: And, it is in fact creating a huge age crisis in Japan, as I'm sure you've heard.

E: I'm not saying that the excessive breeding of African Muslims is a good thing, but at least you gotta give em credit for trying to stay alive.

E: Well, I do; I'm not sure where your morality fits into this.

E: So, we should wrap up.

A: yep

E: Do you want to take a stab at defining secular humanism for next time, and how it obviates the need for a consensus around my Deistic Hypothesis?

A: I'm not really sure I'm interested in continuing, actually.

E: Sorry to hear that.

E: I apologize if my more adversarial tone today didn't help things.

E: But, perhaps that is wisdom on your part, to recognize the futility of dead-horse beatings.

E: still there?

A: yes

A: I don't think we're going to get anywhere.

E: So, maybe we should simply try to end well.

E: Perhaps we could each write up our reflections on how we thought things went, just to wrap things up.

A: Sure. It might be a couple days, though.

E: No hurry; I'm gone all weekend anyway.

E: Perhaps if we can get our respective Conclusions posted, we can chat about them one last time next Thursday.

A: We can discuss that (privately) after they are posted, I suppose.

E: To be honest, it would be something of a relief to have this over; though, I'll miss being connected to you this tightly.

E: fair enough

A: Thanks, Ernie. I'll be in touch.

E: 'later

A: bye