Saturday, March 22, 2014

Can morality be reduced to a scientific description? - part 2

If C1 is valid (from part 1), there is no reason to maintain that morals arise from well-being and suffering. That could be considered a bottom-up approach where the tail wags the dog. On the contrary, if C1 is valid, morality can exist independent of any experience of the agent.

Morals are not derived from well-being and suffering (ethical naturalism) but, are applied to instances of well-being or suffering so that moral action is achieved in the face of these experiences (ethical nonnaturalism). In other words, morality is applied to experiences, not derived from experiences. (C2) Thinking that they are derived from experiences constitutes a misunderstanding of what morality is. Morality is a value system that determines how a person should react to certain circumstances and how a person shapes the events within their sphere of influence so that desirable outcomes are obtained. Ethical naturalism confuses an "is" (what most people want or desire - descriptive) with an "ought" (a universally true moral statement - normative). For example, pedophiles can state that pedophilia is desirable for their well being but, this does not make pedophilia morally right. A majority of people can agree to torture babies but, that does not make it morally right. The fact that both cases are considered morally wrong is confirmation that ethical naturalism is difficult to practice, even by those who espouse it.

It has been maintained by Richard Dawkins that altruism is a quality that has been developed through the process of evolution and is embedded in the genes of people because if people help each other, the species has a better chance of survival. If the quality of altruism gets passed down, this further perpetuates the preservation of the species. One expression of this concept was in the work of R. A. Fisher and J. B. S. Haldane called kin selection. An agent will make sacrifices in order to protect the preservation of the species (provided the benefit to the preservation of the species is greater than the loss to the individual making the sacrifice). This could be called vertical altruism in that it is most commonly from an older generation to a younger generation. Another expression of this concept is reciprocal altruism. If agents cooperate in survival, the preservation of the species has a greater chance for success. This could be called horizontal altruism. This results in agents working together to form a conglomerate morality that pragmatically "works" for their culture. In time, societies evolve. As this happens, morality continually improves as knowledge increases and the desire for the "greater good" prevails. This benefits the species as a whole and the species is preserved.

First, every subsequent example of physical conflict undermines this theory, provided the competition for resources is not an issue and communication of ideas continues to proliferate. In other words, there is less and less reason for violent confrontation because continued cooperation helps to overcome any lack of resources and communication more widely distributes the idea that altruism is best for humanity. Even though this is true, there are copious examples of conflict that have nothing to do with competition for resources. Many conflicts are for purely military strategic reasons or for religious reasons. If Dawkins were right, conflicts based on these reasons would continue to diminish until they stopped existing because the alleged evolutionary force of altruism inherent to people would override any forces that compete with it. Moreover, no one would seek power to the extent that they construct weapons of mass destruction. If nuclear warfare were to break out, much of the species would be eliminated thus, diminishing the chances of survival for the victors, if there were any. From an altruistic perspective, mass warfare makes no sense because one group is eliminating fellow humans that they rely for existence, even if it is indirectly. This surely must mean that altruism is not nearly the driving evolutionary force that Dawkins thinks it is. Evidentially, altruism does not seem to be the case to the extent that it is actually preserving the species.

Second, examples of people taking risks undermines the altruism idea. If altruism really were an evolutionary part of human makeup, then all people would increasingly realize the corollary that taking risks undermines altruism. The less risks people take, the less altruism is actually necessary. Yet, people continue to do all sorts of things that are potentially fatal. For example, terrorists flew commercial airplanes into the World Trade Towers. In the aftermath, many people rushed into the infernos to rescue people. If the towers weren't there, there would have been less injury to the human race. There was risk involved in building them. There was risk involved in bringing them down. There was risk involved in saving the people in the buildings. So, why do people build skyscrapers to begin with? Such buildings really have nothing to do with the preservation of the species. There are certainly less risky ways to accomplish the same task without creating something that increases the need for altruism. In other words, altruism should spark people to minimize the need for altruism but, people continue to engage in potentially fatal activities. Some risks are taken merely because they can be taken, such as mountain climbing. Every insect or animal that could potentially harm humans should be removed from existence or at least quarantined so that they can still exist but, cause little or no damage. Many of the risks that people take are for the purposes of finding ways to make life more convenient. However, this is a new phenomenon. Mankind existed without modern conveniences for millenia.

Third, euthanasia and abortion undermine the altruism argument. If altruism for the sake of preservation of the species were really so genetically engrained in people as Dawkins believes, there would never be a question of the dignity of life. A pregnant woman may choose to abort the pregnancy when she perceives that her quality of life will be diminished. However, it is not known what impact the unborn child will have on the preservation of the species. If the altruistic drive proposed by Dawkins were really the case, there would be no abortion for cases when the child will not affect the preservation of the species but, could potentially perpetuate it. In fact, the reverse should be true in a purely evolutionary, biological system; that the parent would make sacrifices to ensure the well being of the child. The idea of kin selection is that the older generation makes sacrifices for the younger generation provided the benefit to the younger generation is greater than the risk to the agent making the sacrifice. From a purely evolutionary perspective, any child that is going to imperil the lives of the parents (such as the physically or mentally impaired) should be eliminated because this injures the preservation of the species. Yet, parents will go to any lengths to provide life for children who will clearly do not preserve the species. Since there are examples of abortion merely for the convenience of the mother and of parents sacrificing for children who do not contribute to the preservation of the species, clearly, something other than purely biological motives are at work. Moreover, why do people sacrifice for the elderly and dying? There is no evolutionary advantage for doing so. People have expended significant effort to protect the quality of life for those who are dying. Conversely, euthanasia is advocated by some people even for cases when a person is suffering emotional stress. Again, this is done under the guise of protecting the dignity of life. A not unrelated problem is the issue of suicide.The notion of the dignity of life is not related to the preservation of the species. Dignity is not needed for the species to survive. In fact, it seems taxing on the strongest in some cases.

The previous three points are accumulating into one overall point.

P5. Dawkins, et al, maintain that moralistic altruism is an outworking of the preservation of the species. People are genetically predisposed to help each other.
P6. There are examples of conflict for esoteric reasons that hinder the preservation of the species.
P7. There are examples of risk taking for esoteric reasons that hinder the preservation of the species.
P8. Dignity of life and quality of life are esoteric concepts that can impede the preservation of the species.
C3. Conflating moralistic altruism and biological, evolutionary forces is unjustified. Ethical naturalism is an inaccurate system of description of morality.

Again, it seems that agents are acting on some force other than purely biological forces for the preservation of the species. Thus, the moralistic altruism mentioned by Dawkins is not the same thing as the genetic drive to preserve the species. Carrier even objects to Harris' qualifier of well-being and suffering  by pointing out that Harris is describing something less moral than prudential. If this is the case, Harris' "well-being and suffering" is not an adequate description of the basis for morality. Do well-being and suffering pertain to the preservation of the species, something numinous or both? C3 implies that well-being and suffering do not pertain merely to preservation of the species. Something else is going on especially in cases of P5-P8. Harris and Carrier might be ok with that, although not if they are approaching the situation from a physicalism perspective. As stated earlier, physicalism will not allow any room for something numinous. However, the cases in P5-P8 suggest that something non-physical is going on. Agents are acting on situations that are not purely biological and physical. For example, discrimination is a moral issue. It is wrong to discriminate against someone. Likewise, slavery is wrong. It is wrong to enslave someone else. These are moral issues. They are the way things ought to be. However, they do not pertain to the preservation of the species. Humankind has persisted in the face of these immoral situations.

C1, C2 and C3 build a cumulative case against the description of morals by Carrier, Harris, Dawkins, Dennet, et al. In the end, the case for ethical naturalism (EN) is guilty of special pleading. EN proponents want to disassemble morality into disparate ethical components, take them from their non-empirical source and port them into the world of methodological naturalism to be subject to the language of scientific quantification. However, they ignore that human agents (merely evolutionary developed biological machines in the EN view) are acting on something axiologically higher than preservation of the species and survival of the fittest. In other words, it is inconsistent to say that science can quantify morality but, then ignore actions by people that have nothing to do with the raw evolution of the species. If science can quantify morality, then there should never be any actions by people that are like P5-P8. If P5-P8 are undeniable, then those actions are not necessarily reducible to the language of science and the EN assertion is at least presumptuous and at most, blatantly false.

Can morality be reduced to a scientific description? - part 1

Richard Carrier comments on Sam Harris' position on the ability of science to eventually determine morality, what is right and wrong. This implies that there is no need to appeal to anything supernatural for the source of morality. In commenting on Harris' position, Carrier states the premise that "Morals and values are physically dependent (without remainder) on the nature of any would-be moral agent (such that given the nature of an agent, a certain set of values will necessarily obtain, and those values will then entail a certain set of morals)."

This could be rephrased to say: Values are obtained by an agent based on the nature of the agent. Those values will then entail a certain set of morals. Therefore, morality and values are physically dependent on the nature of the moral agent.

The main point of the premise is that morals and values are physically dependent on the experience of the agent. Carrier adds that these experiences are "constrained (and thus determined) by natural physical laws and objects (the furniture of the universe and how it behaves)." There is an implication, whether intended or not, that without the agent's physical experience, morals and values wouldn't exist. Harris' initial statement cited by Carrier implies the same thing; "Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds - and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe."

It can certainly be said that without our own existence, we would not know of morality because there would be no agents for morality to be obtained by. However, is it true that if we did not exist, morality would necessarily not exist? Is it possible that morality is not produced by our existence but obtained by the agent through some kind of perception?

The proponent of physicalism in the philosophy of science would probably maintain that there is no need to appeal to any kind of perception of morality in agents from an external source because agents are the product of the physical, empirical universe. Mind does not really exist in and of itself. It is instead a product of various neural and cognitive functions. Thus, mental and emotional states or conditions are derived from processes that exist purely at the physical level. A neurochemical process takes place and a mental result follows. Based on responses to stimuli, these results coalesce into beliefs and experiences. Eventually, the process is complex enough that a personal value system develops. When the values of one agent interact with the same from other agents, morality begins to develop.

The problem with this stance is that it does not exist unchallenged, particularly from a dualist perspective. The dualist does not agree that a person is merely the sum of their physical constituents. There is something numinous about a person, regardless of what nomenclature is invoked - mind, soul, spirit, the transcendent, etc. The dualist maintains that the physical body is instructed by the mind. For example, in the case of intentionality, a person intends to do something and the body then follows. The proponent of physicalism will obviously object to such a stance because the language refers to something not empirical and therefore, not capable of being quantified. The dualist has no problem with this because it is numinous, it does not need to be empirically quantified for us to know that it exists.

One approach to this dilemma is that either physicalism is true or dualism is true. There may be excellent reasons to believe that dualism is the case but, they will be less empirical and more ethereal. Thus, if the two are pitted against each other, dualism will have to at least partially turn to the language of metaphysics for description whereas physicalism will not. The language of metaphysics is eschewed by the physicalist because of the subjective nature of that language. Examples of such language might be intentionality, perception, identity, etc. Any resolution of this duel between physicalism and dualism hinges on each side solving a critique. The physicalist charges the dualist to provide proof that the metaphysical examples just listed absolutely cannot be reduced to the language of science. If it remains that the dualist examples just listed can indeed be unequivocally explained by science, then dualism can be jettisoned as superfluous. The physicalist will have to answer the dualist charge why metaphysics absolutely cannot be invoked in explaining these phenomena. Both sides can point to examples of how their view has contributed to the advancement of knowledge about the evidential matter of experience either arising from physicalism or dualism.

Another alternative is that both physicalism and dualism are true in a certain sense. It could be the case that physicalism describes conditions to a degree while dualism remains true as well. Physicalism might have to be redefined as soft physicalism in that it would allow for the metaphysical existence of dualism as opposed to outright denying it's existence, i.e. hard physicalism. One criticism of this approach is that the point of such a harmony vitiates both positions. What is the point of physicalism if it remains true that there is a spirit or soul? The entire empirical enterprise of explaining outcomes physically is lost. A response could be that physicalism is still needed to describe the physical process of how humans operate, regardless of any mind involved. This is not terribly different than counseling in which the counselor might deal with any chemical effects on the brain while still dealing with the mental and emotional experiences. The physicalist approach (assessing the situation from a purely empirical point of view) was still needed in order to diagnose the condition, formulate a chemical intervention and prescribe the proper application of it. However, the medicine does not resolve all emotional problems by itself. Another criticism harkens back to Descartes' pineal gland solution to the problem of interaction between the mind and the body. He speculated that the pineal gland is what facilitated the interaction between body and soul. When the mind had a thought or desire, it was delivered to the brain through the pineal gland for the body to act upon. This problem has not be resolved by dualists. Even so, that does not mean it can't be the case. In fact, it provides a reasonable explanation of experience even if the precise method of interaction remains a mystery. The dualist would be philosophically justified in saying that empirical science is not needed to verify this state of affairs since the mind is beyond the purview of science. Physicalists are not willing to concede that point. If the dualist says that the explanation of the interaction between body and soul is not scientific because of a perceived limitation of science, the physicalism proponent will say that is a failure of the dualist position in that it is "cooking the evidence." In other words, the dualist has rigged the conditions of the situation such that their explanation is more viable.

Physicalism will never be able to disprove dualism. (P4) Even if physicalism can ultimately explain all human experience in the language of science, that would still not constitute a proof that there is no mind or nothing numinous about a person. The most a physicalist could say is that dualism is superfluous. On the other hand, dualism will always be able to coexist with physicalism, as long as the physicalism is not a "hard" physicalism that positively precludes any allowance for something non-physical. (P1) Moreover, dualism can forward the premise that there are good reasons to believe that dualism is the case even if those reasons are metaphysical and ultimately subjective. (P2) Thus, in order for the Carrier/Harris premise to be the case, physicalism would have to completely and unequivocally show that dualism is not possible. (P3) Since it remains possible that both (soft) physicalism and dualism can coexist, it remains that morality can arise from numinous revelation rather than merely as a response to stimuli and resultant neural processes. Consequently, morals and values can potentially arise from something other than the experience of the agent (C1). This could be formally expressed:

P1. Dualism can exist in concert with (soft) physicalism.
P2. Dualism can advance reasons for non-physical aspects of existence, even if those reasons are rejected by physicalists (buttressed by P4).
P3. Dualism would have to be completely vitiated in order for a physicalist paradigm to only be the case.
P4. Dualism cannot be completely vitiated such that only physicalism is the case.
C1. It remains possible that since dualism can possibly exist, morals can possibly be attained through non-physical means.

It was earlier asked if morals could possibly exist even if the experiencing agent did not. The conclusion just drawn (C1) leaves open the possibility that morals can exist apart from the experiencing agent. Morals and values are not necessarily dependent on the agent for them to be obtained by.

Carrier's assertion that "The nature of an agent, the desires of conscious beings, and the laws of nature are all matter of fact subjectable to empirical scientific inquiry and discovery. (Whether this has been done or not i.e. this is a claim to what science could do, not to what science has already done.)" is hopelessly problematic and little more than provocation. First, it has already been established that dualism proponents do not agree with this stance. In order for Carrier's overreaching premise to have certain validity, physicalism would have to completely vitiate dualism. Otherwise, it always remains possible that there is a numinous source of morality, that morals are not "constrained (and thus determined) by natural physical laws and objects (the furniture of the universe and how it behaves)." Second, Carrier's qualifier in parentheses unwittingly undermines his own premise; "Whether this has been done or not i.e. this is a claim to what science could do, not to what science has already done." If his qualifier has not been achieved by science, then the premise is completely unsubstantiated. If it remains possible that science could make such a determination, then it is also possible that science could not make such a determination. This is called smuggled in authority. He is claiming as scientific fact something that has not been factually established by science. In fact, some philosophers of science maintain that this is indeed something beyond the purview of science, in spite of Carrier's claim to the contrary (that science allegedly can quantify it, therefore it must be true). In this sense, Carrier's argument is whistling past the graveyard. There is an entire discipline of philosophy, the philosophy of science, that is engaged in realism vs antirealism, physicalism vs dualism, demarcation problem and theory ladenness of science debates. To assert by fiat a philosophical argument that takes one side in a disputed matter is just presumptuous.

This can parenthetically lead to an explanation of something mentioned in the Harris quote, that the experience of well-being and suffering lead to the development of values and morals. (continued in part 2)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

COSMOS and Giordano Bruno

In the first episode of COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY, the story of Giordano Bruno is recounted. The portrayal is of him, a rebel and freethinker, in conflict with the oppressive and dogmatic Catholic Church authorities. Bruno espoused not only the Copernican idea of heliocentrism but, also that there were an infinite number of worlds with an infinite number of beings. This would obviously have put him at odds with the religious hegemony of geocentrism and the idea that mankind was a unique creation of God and therefore, alone in the universe. If mankind were just one of many, the incarnation and redemption of Christ would be diminished.

Giordano Bruno was a Dominican friar who had a passion for knowledge. According to the show, he read a book called On the Nature of Things by Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman philosopher. The show claims that the book was banned by the Catholic Church, although this is misleading. The book is not on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum but, the teachings of Lucretius were officially prohibited from being read in schools by the Florentine Synod of 1517. The book had been preserved by Catholic monks who needed copious reading material for their ascetic lifestyle. Certainly, it is possible that the book was outlawed wherever he was at the time. From the book, Bruno was introduced to the notion that the universe was boundless, among other things written about by Lucretius.

Bruno is shown to be genuinely striving for cosmological truth through rational discovery and forward-thinking investigation. Thus, Bruno acts as an early ambassador for science and embodies the spirit of discovery only to be squashed by religious tyrants who cling to antiquated notions. This characterization of Bruno is problematic because Bruno was no pioneer of science. In fact, there were no scientists at the time. While this was a time of scientific discovery and the disciplines of science were burgeoning, the scientific method wouldn't begin to be codified for another 50 years or so. Moreover, even the show's narrator admits that Bruno didn't perform any scientific investigation to reach his conclusions. In the words of the Neil Tyson, Bruno's successful speculation about the plurality of worlds was merely "a lucky guess."

Instead of scientists, people who engaged in scientific thinking and experimentation were called natural philosophers. This indicates that up until the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, there was little to no notion of secularity. There was no bifurcation of science and religion. On the contrary, the two were often thought to go hand in hand. This was true even of the Romans, who exhibited some measure of secularism, when they accused Christians of being "atheists" because the Christians refused to worship the tangible statues of Roman gods. Failure to do so constituted the potential for social disruption.

This episode in history has long been used by certain people as a quintessential example of how theology allegedly disdains intellectual freedom, how religion corrupts society for the sake of power, how it suppresses advancement, how science is merely interested in the truth and how it works for the betterment of life.  On this view, religion should stay a private matter, if it should exist at all, whereas science should enjoy boundless support from everyone. Of course, all of these characterizations are controversial and misleading. Unfortunately, COSMOS wholeheartedly propagated the historical false dichotomy and missed a wonderful opportunity to give a more equitable portrayal.

Ronald Numbers edited Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion which addresses these very types of episodes where science and religion seemingly come into conflict. In this book, there is a chapter devoted specifically to Bruno's story titled "That Giordano Bruno Was the First Martyr of Modern Science" by Jole Shackelford. Shackelford rephrases the situation in that "Again, we see the implicit reasoning: Bruno was an innovative natural philosopher; he was executed by the church for his ideas, which eventually formed a basis for modern science; ergo, the church killed him to limit the free development of scientific ideas."

The fact of Bruno's final trial which is overlooked by the science crusaders is that Bruno was not convicted because of his cosmological belief. In The Pope and the Heretic: The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition, Michael White lists "eight counts of heresy. These included his belief that the transubstantiation of bread into flesh and wine into blood was a falsehood, that the virgin birth was impossible…" Bruno, like Galileo, did not merely pronounce his acceptance of Copernican ideas apart from the larger context of his beliefs. These cosmological beliefs were tethered to other, more theological conclusions that were certainly in contrast with established doctrine. In "The Great Chain of Being," (The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia), William Bynum adds that Bruno was also deemed heretical because of "his interest in magic rather than his devotion to plenitude." Shackelford comments that "Accordingly, Bruno's burning stood as an example of the Inquisition's hostility to philosophical claims that had serious theological implications for core Catholic doctrine as defined by the Council of Trent." As stated earlier, the idea of separation between Church and state was not yet prevalent in Europe. People of those times and before rarely thought of their religious beliefs as being unrelated to their ideas of how society should be run or how discovery should proceed. Thus, it was not unusual for Bruno, or anyone else, to make these kinds of connections between various conclusions into an all-encompassing theology. The problem is that Bruno is portrayed as a dispassionate scientist who was punished by closed minded tyrants. Actually, Bruno was a Christian monk with clearly heretical beliefs. Shackelford  continues, "Bruno had used Copernicus's ideas not in a scientific context but in a specifically religious context, namely, the advocacy of Hermetic religion as a corrective for the woes of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe."

Shackelford also notes that the Church was somewhat justified in their punishment of Bruno. He says "According to Angelo Mercati, who discovered and published the summary document pertaining to Bruno's trial and condemnation by the Roman Inquisition, Bruno's crimes were clearly of a religious nature, no matter what his views of the structure of the physical cosmos." There is no doubt that the Catholic church has erred in many ways, especially during the era of Christendom. Some leaders were overzealous in protecting their interpretation of doctrine that they perceived was in danger from heretical sects like the Reformers. The zeal for power often caused religious leaders to create atrocities such as those of the Inquisition. In many of those cases, conflicts like the one with Bruno or Galileo weren't merely theological. Clergy were often motivated by less than virtuous reasons and in that sense, were not acting in the spirit of Christianity. Therefore, it is unjustifiable to condemn Christian theology or all Christians for the crimes of individuals who are not in acting in accordance with orthodox Christian belief.

The false dichotomy of religion vs reason is just oversimplified. The issue was not merely philosophical freedom and the control of religious teaching. As mentioned before, Galileo's case is often similarly oversimplified by leaving out the fact that, like Bruno, he was challenging the authority of the day by drawing illicit theological conclusions from non-religious observations. The two were unacceptably intertwined in the view of the authorities and in that sense, the Catholic Church had every right to protect their tradition. Shackelford explains that "The Catholic Church did not impose thought control on astronomers, and even Galileo was free to believe what he wanted about the position and mobility of the earth, so long as he did not teach the Copernican hypothesis as a truth on which Holy Scripture had no bearing."

Not including this in the biography of Bruno shows a blatant bias on the part of COSMOS. There is no reason to mischaracterize the situation unless an agenda is at work. Again, the agenda is a science vs religion false dichotomy. In short, religion-bad, science-good. Science and scientists were trying to break free from the imprisonment of religious dogma. The animation of the religious authorities displayed intellectual bigotry and unjustified suppression while Bruno was a humble, honest, enlightened victim who became a warrior for truth in the face of adversity. In reality, Bruno was prone to violent disagreements and was largely intolerant of other people's beliefs.

The show also falls into the common trap of pitting rational forces versus Christian forces in these instances. However, this was a Christian trying to advance certain beliefs. Bruno was not doing so from a secular perspective. Concordantly, the authority of the Catholic Church was not defied by secular forces during the Enlightenment. Christian reformers were responsible for that movement. This is another aspect of the false dichotomy mentioned earlier.

In the Numbers book, several similar myths are dispelled such as the one that Medieval Christianity was decidedly anti intellectual, as the show intimates.

In closing, Shackelford concludes that "We must look beyond the construction of the myth of Giordano Bruno as a moralistic topos in the triumphant struggle between the freedom of scientific inquiry and the shackles of conformity to the dead letter of religious revelation."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Resurrection belief in pre-Christian Judaism

On p. 152 of John Drane's Introducing the New Testament, he says that "The disciples themselves had no expectation at all that a dead person might be resurrected." Similarly, on p. 156, he says "at the time of Jesus…most Jews would have had no concept of resurrection."

Both of these statements are questionable because both the Bible and scholarship do indeed support that there was resurrection belief in Judaism prior to the life of Jesus. For example, John 11:24 says "Martha said, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.'" Clearly, this quote suggests that at least Martha had an expectation of a general resurrection of the Jews. It's unlikely she thought of this herself, especially in light of additional passages on the subject.

Matthew 22:30 records Jesus responding to the Sadducees that "in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven." In verse 29, Jesus qualifies his statement by adding that what he is saying is supported by "the Scriptures." This would most certainly indicate that he is referring to a belief that should be considered authoritative by any orthodox Jew.

Jesus says that "you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” in Luke 14:14. It is possible that he is referring to a belief that is not shared by all. His comments about being repaid seem to be made in the context of common conversation, not something theologically erudite, such as in cryptic parables. His resurrection comment is couched in these terms which makes it more likely to be something easily recognizable by his listeners. Moreover, he provides no additional commentary either to the guests or to the disciples further suggesting something not exclusive to himself.

In addition to these scriptures, N. T. Wright surveys resurrection belief in biblical era cultures, including Judaism, on pp. 85-207 of The Resurrection of the Son of God. He contextualizes early Christian resurrection belief by stating that "'Resurrection' is not part of the pagan hope. If the idea belongs anywhere, it is within the world of Judaism." (p. 85)

The importance of this realization is that the Christian belief in resurrection wasn't illicitly imported from foreign cultures. There was an expectation of the general resurrection of the dead in Judaism in which all of God's people would arise with resurrection bodies. On this point, Wright traces through the Old Testament and later Jewish writings a nationalistic new hope that arose after particular challenges and the common theme of restoration for God's people. This hope was based on Yahweh's providence, justice and mercy. There was no force, whether earthly or supernatural, that could prevent God's people, including those who had passed, from partaking in that new hope.

Thus, Drane goes astray when he attempts to bolster the reliability of the resurrection stories by arguing that the unique perspectives offered by the Gospel authors is evidence of their historicity. He is responding to the criticism that the resurrection of Jesus was a later invention to rescue the movement from the ignominious death of its luminary. The line of argumentation is superfluous since it is based on a faulty premise. This is unfortunately exacerbated when he makes the comments that "the various accounts are not easy to reconcile with one another" and "that the disciples did not tell a logical and coherent story." (p. 152) Much of Christian scholarship has had little trouble with these perceived issues. In fact, it's hard to imagine that Christianity could survive if the resurrection accounts were as problematic as he suggests, especially in light of Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 15:14. Paul states unambiguously that the resurrection is the central fact to Christian belief. If that is the case and the accounts are incoherent, Christianity would seemingly crumble or fracture beyond recognition. Furthermore, the fact that there was sharp polemical dispute between Sadducees and others on the matter shows that Drane is mistaken. If he were right, there would be no reason for anyone to disagree with the Sadducees, much less as vehemently as they did. (mBerekoth 9.5)

Drane makes an intriguing point that the instances when resurrection was mentioned in the New Testament are not done so in the context of scriptural quotations, as had happened in conversations on other topics. However, this is not a conclusive point for a couple of reasons. First, scriptural quotation is not solely indicative of religious belief. It is possible, even likely, that resurrection belief incubated among the people apart from scripture yet, was no less orthodox than legal beliefs. In fact, messianic belief could be said to have developed similarly. Neither the temple nor the Holy Land were scriptural yet, both are further examples of things the Jews would have considered absolutely indispensible to their religious gestalt. Concordantly, Drane's response to the reliability challenge cuts both ways. As opposed to his perspective that the accounts are abrupt and disjointed, the fact that early Christians had no problem incorporating the resurrection into their praxis suggests that perhaps it wasn't so alien to begin with. This dovetails nicely with the idea that Jesus saw himself as a course correction for Judaism in and through his person; they had lost their way in turning to legal compliance and obligation. In the same way, Jesus' resurrection can serve to clarify the knowledge of resurrection latent within Judaism based on his exemplar. Second, Jesus is the person typically quoting scripture in the Gospels, not others. Thus, it is not entirely out of place that Martha comments on the subject without reference to scripture. Additionally, Jesus saw himself as equally authoritative to the scriptures and on multiple occasions makes statements that are derived from himself, not scripture. Therefore, him not quoting scripture on the matter is not conclusive that the belief didn't exist in Judaism.

Drane's citation of Mark 9:9, 10 is especially weak given that the disciples weren't necessarily referring to the general resurrection of the dead but, to the particular death of Jesus since he had just commented on it.

The one statement on the matter that Drane does get correct is that there was no conception among Jews that the messiah was to suffer physical death, much less need resurrection. This was certainly a point of confusion for those of "the way" after Jesus' death and prior to his resurrection.

Perhaps a better response to the challenge of the historicity of the accounts is in the reliability of the Gospel accounts in general, which has been well established by New Testament scholarship, and by the advent of the Christian movement. Something has to account for the sudden and profound transformation of Jesus' disciples. Their zeal and passion for their cause can best be explained by the reality of the resurrection. In writing a historical survey of the New Testament, Drane would probably prefer to not appeal to a more polemical response as these last two points yet, they possess inimitable explanatory power.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

More thoughts on the Sean Carroll/WLC debate

I feel that WLC let Carroll off the hook in a certain aspect of the debate. Carroll repeatedly inculcated the point about how many promising cosmological models there are that can explain the existence of the universe without a finite, quantum singularity, beginning point. He then criticized WLC for not fully understanding the mathematical bases for these models. In logical form:
  1. Cosmological models exist that have promising explanatory value that obviate the need for a "beginning" to the universe.
  2. In time, these models will be refined until one is discovered to be superior.
  3. If they can be understood by a person, there would be no need for that person to appeal to beginning.
  4. If there is no need to appeal to a beginning, there is no need to look for a transcendent cause to the universe. The universe can be explained by the language of science without appeal to the supernatural.
  5. That kind of epistemological explanation is to be preferred to subjective, metaphysical language.
  6. Since these models are mathematically rigorous (#1) and are going to become stronger through a sort of scientific evolutionary process (#2) and their language is to be preferred to metaphysical language (#5), there is no need to look for a beginning to the universe and a "cause."
Obviously, the implication here is that people like WLC dogmatically cling to outdated characterizations of the universe because those descriptions harmonize with nonscientific, religious, subjective, metaphysical beliefs. Such beliefs can't be confirmed by methodological naturalism which we know to be epistemologically superior. Therefore, those beliefs have been superseded by the kinds of models that Carroll promulgated.

Here is the major flaw with Carroll's line of thinking that WLC didn't really pursue. There were a few instances when the early conditions of the universe were mentioned. Assuming that there was a quantum singularity, there was a point at which the 4 fundamental forces were combined in the compressed/condensed universe. Once expansion starts to occur (the Big Bang), those forces begin to differentiate from one another. What this means is that the so called "laws of physics" that Carroll trumpeted as the proverbial kanon are not applicable during such early conditions. Worse, we can't even make meaningful observations about conditions prior to that because our noetic mechanisms for doing so are incompatible with those conditions, which Carroll acknowledges and discussed more than once. Here is where WLC let Carroll off the hook. We have a model that works! It's called the Big Bang, It is scientifically efficacious and parsimonious. It is based on observable, testable phenomena. It is has predictability. Yes, it presumes a quantum singularity but, that is where the science is now. 

The models that Carroll so fondly caressed are thoroughly problematic (and he even criticized one the competing models). In contrast with the Big Bang, they are not based on observable phenomena. They are not empirically testable. Worse, in some cases they anachronistically retroject current scientific language on to an imagined phase of the universe that potentially doesn't adhere to current laws of physics. I am not suggesting that scientists should abandon such cosmological investigations. What I am saying is that we have to recognize them for what they are; metaphysical speculations with scientific sounding language. They are imaginative, creative, brilliant and could ultimately be helpful or even explanatory. Right now, they're somewhat like string theories which are largely based on mathematics with little to no empirical confirmation. This is why there is a lack of accord between quantum physicists and string theorists. There are quantum physicists who view string theory as somewhat dubious.

In this regard, WLC adhered to the conventions of methodological naturalism more so than Carroll did. it's deceptive that WLC is not a scientist and Sean Carroll is. Worse, Carroll used scientific sounding language and science like models to dazzle people who don't realize the debate wasn't about science. It was about what science implies. This is where WLC's credentials exceed Carroll's. Carroll is not a trained metaphysicist or theologian.

WLC and Sean Carroll debated at the 2014 Greer Heard forum. Here's why Sean Carroll lost.

#1 - he missed the point of the debate and ended up not defending the position he was supposed to take. The debate was whether or not contemporary cosmology gives good reasons for belief in God existence. WLC presented big bang cosmology as a reason for that belief. It's a darn good reason because the model's success is attested to by virtually every scientist except for a handful of them, cosmologists, who don't like it's implications. It calls for a causal explanation for the beginning of the universe. Carroll, on the other hand, said there are plenty of successful models that explain the existence of the universe apart from a "beginning" so to speak. There are at least 3 problems with this response.

First, it either kicks the can down the road or says that something came from nothing. An infinite regress is logically impossible and there is nothing in nature that suggests it could be the case; e.g., the second law of thermodynamics. SLOT is scientific evidence against infinite regress. So, that option is out and WLC addressed that pointedly. On the latter, he took issue with WLC saying "popping into existence." Well, if you don't posit an infinite regress and you don't believe in God, then you necessarily believe that the universe came from nothing, at some point. This too is problematic because ex nihilo, nihil fit. WLC also addressed this pointedly.

Second, the models Carroll cites are theoretical proposals based on mathematical probabilities, not evidence. They are nothing more than fanciful uses of scientific imagination. Moreover, as WLC pointed out, cosmologists are far separated from any kind of consensus on any of the models but, Carroll continued to talk as if science were empirical and objective, which was specious. Big bang cosmology is far from a theoretical, speculative model and has multiple aspects of scientific confirmation.

Third, those models do absolutely nothing to obviate belief in God, which was supposed to be his position. All they do is posit that the universe we live in could potentially have come from another incarnation before it. There is still a wide, wide window for God to operate within in that line of thinking. In fact, it could be that in time, any one of those models will yield similar reasons to believe in God's existence as the big bang model has. What really kills this idea is that it could be that God is necessary for the conditions that caused the universe to come from some prior incarnation. In other words, God might be a necessary causal agent for any of the multiverse theories to either originate or be maintained.

#2 - Carroll kept obfuscating on the main question. He said that asking for a cause of the beginning of the universe is the wrong kind of question. Well, why was he even in the debate then? The whole point was to investigate whether or not known facts yield a positive or negative response to the question, not that the question is a category mistake. If the observed laws of physics are not applicable outside of our paradigm, then why are scientists scurrying around looking for prior causes? Isn't that a category mistake, particularly when the laws of physics are not applicable? Why look for prior causes via alternative cosmological models other than to find ultimate causality? This was not a debate on why cosmological models are successful from a purely methodological naturalism perspective. This was a debate on whether or not they yield insight into the metaphysical, the transcendent, the supernatural. In this regard, he and all other philosophical naturalists are on the losing side. No one will ever be able to prove there is not a God, even a deistic one, much less one that actually intervenes in this world. It would require knowing everything possible, including in other possible worlds even though they operate differently. This is clearly impossible, even from a hypothetical standpoint. The theist, on the other hand, does have good reason to believe in God.

BTW, did you notice that Carroll made multiple appeals to the "laws of physics" that the universe operates according to but then, on multiple occasions said that the universe will operate in different ways in different places. This is duplicitous. So, which is it? Are there immutable, ubiquitous laws or not? This is called special pleading. He gets to say that science has the advantage of "facts" on its side because it operates according to laws that invariably predict outcomes (methodological naturalism). They have been honed for at least 200 years. He also gets to have instances where "anything goes" because of how diverse the universe is (supernatural speculation). This means that scientist are free to invent theories no matter how fanciful and they are somehow more plausible than the big bang model which has been vigorously confirmed by science. Whenever WLC would make a point about natural phenomena, Carroll would bounce out to the strange and wonderful multiverse and act like WLC was ignorant. Then, when WLC would comment on something about the multiverse like the tenseless or tensed nature of time outside of this universe, Carroll would jump back into this universe and talk about the immutable laws of physics and his rock solid empirical worldview. Convenient.

In the end, Carroll is obviously authoritative about cosmology but, not about metaphysics. In contrast, WLC is authoritative in that regard. He understands clearly the demarcation problem, even though he didn't address it. WLC certainly worked harder than necessary to undermine Carroll's points.

Last, what was that irrelevant diatribe on naturalism vs theism? Carroll was even more wrong about that which isn't surprising because he's a scientist, not a philosopher.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

L 5.33

Agnosticism is built on the underlying assumption, indeed a kind of faith, that the process of questioning that we have at our disposal (which is very, very limited) will lead to truth. There are atheists who were Christians, became agnostics and then eventually succumbed to atheism. Despite what these people say, agnosticism does not logically lead to atheism.

One horn of agnosticism is the belief that we can’t know if God exists. Since an atheist cannot prove that God does not exist, the agnostic has no substantiation for turning to atheism as a worldview. We actually can know if God exists through His revelation. Without being able to prove that God does not exist and given the possibility of God’s revelation, the agnostic should not turn to atheism. In fact, the agnostic should not even remain agnostic for these reasons.

Furthermore, agnosticism can be the belief that we can know God’s existence but don’t have the quantity or quality of information at this time to support the belief that He has revealed Himself to us. Where this horn of agnosticism fails is that the assertion can’t be substantiated. What test is there that can be applied to know for sure that we don’t have the appropriate information or proof? There is no template or methodology for this sort of thing. Alternatively, we can know that God has revealed Himself to us through God’s revelation itself. Whether or not everyone agrees that God has done so is irrelevant. Stating we don’t have evidence of God’s revelation is something that can’t be proven. It would require all possible knowledge of this existence and the ability to disprove the phenomenon that people experience revelations. Even this tine of the agnostic fork doesn’t logically lead to atheism.