My most popular post by far is this. It’s not even close.
That post is really more about how I look at religion than it is about getting into the weeds about issues that occupy much of current apologetics. In fact it explains why I think many of the debates in apologetics concern minutia, and why that is not all that interesting to me.
I follow Bart Ehrman’s blog and he posted a debate he had with Jimmy Akin.
I don’t follow Akin’s blog, because he does not allow comments, but I have read many articles and listened to him quite a bit. Both men are extremely knowledgeable about church history. I think Jimmy Akin tends to view Bart in the same way I do. I will agree with what much of Bart says in substance (although not everything) but then he will say “therefore the Gospels are unreliable!” When I was thinking “therefore the Gospels are reliable!” It is like I am saying “a mile is a short distance” and he is saying “no a mile is a long distance!” We both understand a mile is 5280 feet so I tend to say ok whatever and still follow his blog for the facts he raises. BTW the same is true about his saying there are a “huge” number of mistakes in all the manuscripts of the bible and I will look at that same number think in terms of the bible being 73 books of such and such a length and think actually that is a pretty “small” number of mistakes.
I think this is due to Ehrman studying at the Moody Bible Institute which is about as “top down” as it gets, versus my own “bottom up” approach to religion after studying philosophy. Anyway one of the comments from “AdamH” in Ehrman’s blog said:
“[Akin] seemed to defend the point of ‘Well, if the Gospels get a good chunk of the small, middle, and big points right, we can call that reliable.’ That latter point is confusing to me… most people are concerned with asking should I base my whole life or not on these texts, not if they are a historically reliable text from an abstract perspective.”
I responded but was limited to 200 words on Ehrman’s blog. So I wanted to fill out my response here a bit. It seems Adam wants to insist on more reliability because of the importance of the issue. I am sympathetic to his desire, but I don’t think the human condition is such that we can make those demands on reality.
Ehrman and others who argue against Christianity will often ask whether saints really rose from the dead as described in Matthew. But this is not an important question from my perspective. For me the question is not whether every single recorded miracle happened. The question is whether even one of the miracles happened. And, for me, it doesn’t even have to be a big one like the resurrection. (C.f., 1 Corinthians 15:17 ) For me, it could just be healing someone’s hand or even turning water into wine. Even if the Gospel authors were mistaken about all the miracles except one then we would have a situation where God gave us a miraculous sign that we should follow Christ’s teaching. How many times does God need to tell us to follow Christ’s teaching before it is reasonable to do it? My answer is he only needs to tell me once. If God tells us even once to follow Christ’s teaching then I think it is reasonable to follow Christ’s teaching.
Would AdamH say, like Russel, “not enough evidence God not enough evidence”…. “One miraculous sign is not enough! I needed at least three miraculous signs before I would follow Christ’s teaching!”
It seems to me that it is people like AdamH that may be putting up arbitrary standards as to whether the texts should be deemed “historically reliable from an abstract perspective.” I am just looking at it and asking what is the best shot at living a moral life. If all the other options I have are a lower probability then Christianity then I am going with Christianity. I am going with whatever that best shot is regardless of whether I think the best shot has a 98% probability or a 2% probability.
My questions to AdamH would be the same ones I asked myself that lead me to be a Christian. In the meantime, as you sort this out, how are you going to live? Do you think the evidence is better that Muhammad or various miracle claims of other religious people are stronger than the Christian ones? Are you just going to do whatever suits you at the time? What basis do you have to believe your own moral intuitions are reliable if there is no God? And then it would seem we get into philosophy, which is where I started, and ended up in Christianity.
In his book Jesus Loves Canaanites Randall Rauser argues that our moral intuitions are evidence that God would not have commanded the killing of children in Old Testament passages. I agree with this but I think this sort of argument can raise some interesting philosophical and theological issues. Here is my take.
The first theological question is whether he has this backwards. That is shouldn’t our reading of scripture be guiding our moral intuitions rather than our moral intuitions guiding our reading of scripture? In short, I think both Rauser and I agree that scripture says God’s law is written on our hearts Romans 2:14-16. (consider also other passages about the holy spirit helping us understand what to do etc.) so scripture itself tells us our conscience can be a good guide to morality. Our conscience can guide our interpretation of scripture and scripture can guide our conscience.
The second question involves the epistemic moral argument I subscribe to. The argument might be thought of in terms of Plantinga’s argument against naturalism but limited to moral claims. Basically, it argues that if naturalism and evolution are true then we have no way to reliably know what morality requires. Some of the points Rauser makes suggests he may not subscribe to that argument. For example he says:
“So, for example, while Tom believes that the act of devotionally killing one’s child as an offering to God is possibly morally right (i.e. if God has commanded it), powerful moral intuitions support the conclusion that it is necessarily wrong (i.e. God could not command it). For that reason, we believe that it could not possibly be a moral praiseworthy or laudatory (let alone required) action, and so we conclude that God did not command it and that conclusion is independent of the results of any survey of biblical data.”
Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 56-57). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.
If we know what is morally right and wrong based on our intuitions, independent of the bible (and therefore even without the biblical claim that we have God’s law written on our heart) then why would we need scripture or Christianity to help us understand morality? Indeed if we are saying we will change our understanding of scripture based on our moral intuitions, Rauser would seem to be saying we know what morality requires better than we know what scripture requires. But then how is scripture really helpful for living a righteous life? And if we are just going to reinterpret scripture we consider bad morality why even pretend scripture is guiding our morality? Instead, we are just quoting scripture when it agrees with our pre-existing view of the world and tossing it out when it doesn’t. So why be concerned with the bible or religious teaching at all? Rauser has a few approaches he could take in answering these questions but here I will offer my own approach, which I believe are largely consistent with Rauser’s stated views – although I don’t know if he actually endorses them.
My answer is that without God or some supernatural entity guiding our moral intuitions we have no basis to think they are at all reliable. But Randall seems to make an argument that our moral intuitions do have rational grounding. And although he clearly takes the Christian perspective in writing this book, it seems his rational grounding of our moral intuitions is not dependent on Christianity or God.
Rauser, likens moral skeptics to skeptics of the external world – which follow the lines Berkley and others who followed the lines of various cartesian skeptical arguments. (e.g., how do we know we are not dreaming, in a matrix, or a brain in a vat etc.?) He first tries to give an example where someone believes without evidence – but I argue he is failing to recognize “subjective evidence” is in fact evidence here:
He then offers arguments from Reid and GE Moore that we are justified in rejecting skepticism of the external world based on intuition. He will later then use intuition as a justification for our moral beliefs. Moral intuitionalism is a form or moral realism shared by prominent atheist philosophers such as Michael Huemer, and Russ Shaefer Landau. Let’s look at how Rauser formulates the argument against skepticism of the external world.
“Many other philosophers have joined Reid in exploring common sense rebuttals to idealism and skepticism. For example, more than a century after Reid, the British philosopher G.E. Moore offered his own famous refutation of Berkeley’s kind of skepticism. In his essay “Proof of an External World,” Moore provides the following deliciously straightforward rebuttal to idealistic skepticism about the external world: “Here’s one hand and here’s another.” In other words, Moore responds to the claim that we do not perceive anything outside of our minds by insisting that he perceives two hands outside his mind. The simple logic is that if Moore is actually now perceiving his hands “out there” in a world external to his mind, then it follows that there is a world out there external to our minds which we perceive. To be sure, Moore is not claiming that he can provide a general proof to satisfy the skeptic just as one may not be able to establish to the satisfaction of the skeptic that we are not now in a matrix. For that reason, Moore anticipates that the skeptic will retort like this: “If you cannot prove your premiss that here is one hand and here is another, then you do not know it.” Nonetheless, Moore flatly denies this conclusion. The fact that I cannot provide an argument to satisfy the skeptic does not prevent me from knowing that there is a hand external to my mind. Just as I don’t need to be able to convince the detective before I can know that I didn’t commit the murder, so I don’t need to be able to provide a universally compelling disproof of skepticism to believe—and indeed, to know—that it is false. The key, as Moore observes, is that “I can know things, which I cannot prove; and among things which I certainly did know, even if (as I think) I could not prove them, were the premisses of my two proofs.” If Moore is right then it turns out that knowing depends less on being able to refute the skeptic to the skeptic’s satisfaction and more on simply paying close attention to the quality and nature of one’s own sense perceptual experience of the world, experience that simply overwhelms the skeptic’s claim.
Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 65-66). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.
Ok many points can be made here. First yes you can rationally believe something and even “know” it despite the fact that you can not convince others of it. I have addressed this in other blogs. But just because this is possible, that does not mean we always know things we can not prove. Knowledge is traditionaly understood as justified true belief. So you may be justified in believing something you can not prove. However, observing that possibility does not greatly advance the view that we are in fact “justified” in believing in the external world in light of the skeptical arguments.
I think Rauser goes a bit off course when he says “If Moore is right then it turns out that knowing depends less on being able to refute the skeptic to the skeptic’s satisfaction and more on simply paying close attention to the quality and nature of one’s own sense perceptual experience of the world, experience that simply overwhelms the skeptic’s claim.” It is not because we are “paying close attention to the quality and nature” of our experience that we can know we have one hand and another. It is not the case that if we are dreaming (or a brain in a vat) our hands would not appear to have this or that quality or nature which we can identify. It is not like you can see you are recording because of a red dot in the view finder and can also see such a red dot in your dream if you look closely enough. I don’t think that is what Moore was getting at. What then is Moore getting at?
First, Moore is begging the question. But despite that, he makes a point that leads into an important view of knowledge. It is called the causal (or tracking) theory of knowledge. (Which have been promoted by prominent philosophers like Robert Nozick and goldman). Moore can be understood as saying “in fact” my hands are reflecting light from the external world. And, in fact, this light is detected by my eye and, in fact, this is causing me to observe something external to my body. And this process is in fact *causing* my belief in the external world. So his belief “tracks” the truth/reality of the matter. Because his belief is caused by mechanisms that track the truth/reality they are “justified.” Does he have good reason to believe the mechanisms he thinks track the truth actually track the truth in that way? Does he have good reason to exclude the dreaming possibility? In other words does he have good reasons to accept his reasons? Maybe not. But that does not mean he doesn’t know the external world exists – at least not if he adopts a causal or tracking theory of knowledge. Let me explain.
The traditional definition of knowledge is “justified true belief.” So there are three conditions that have to be met for you to “know” something. It has to be true, you have to believe it, and you have to have a certain type of justification to hold that belief. A belief is “true” if an only if it corresponds with reality. And if his hand is, after all, part of the outside world, his claim is “true.” He also “believes” it is true. So the “true” and “belief” conditions are not at issue. The issue is whether Moore’s belief in the external world is “justified.”
Moore’s proof can be understood as demonstrating his belief is “justified” because his reasons for holding it “track” reality. So he believes his hands are part of the external world. And his belief is “justified” because his belief is causally related to (or “tracks”) the truth of the external world. Now does he know his belief tracks the external world in that way? Maybe not. He could say I don’t know that I am not a brain in a vat and therefore I can’t rule out the possibility the hand I seem to see is really not part of the external world. But that would essentially be asking him if he is justified in believing his justification for believing in the external world. That is, he believes in the external world for reason A, but you can ask well why do you believe reason A? And he might give reason B. And you could keep asking then why do you believe reason B? etc., and we could have an infinite regress. Moore in essence can say in order to know the external world exists I just need to be justified in believing the external world exists. I do not need to be justified in believing all the reasons that justify my belief in the external world. So Moore can say I believe in the external world because here are two hands that are part of the external world. Premise 1) I would not see these hands if they did not exist in an external world. Premise 2) I see these hands. Conclusion: The external world exists. Do I need to prove premise one in order to know the conclusion? That would be requiring that he give reasons for his reasons. And if we need to do that infinitely to have knowledge then of course knowledge is impossible.
That said the skeptic does still have what I consider a strong rebuttal that our beliefs should not be stronger than the reasons we have for holding them. So if our reasons do ultimately come down to us saying yeah we have no basis for believing this or that then the skeptic still makes a good point. The fact that this requirement of infinite reasoning is as a practical matter impossible to meet in our finite existence, does not necessarily negate their point. In fact, I believe the skeptical scenarios are a legitimate problem with “knowledge.” Most epistemology writing does not solve the underlying problem but rather tries to redefine “knowledge” so they can avoid it. That is what the causal theory (or tracking theory) of knowledge tries to do.
The beauty of the causal theory (or tracking theory) of knowledge is you can say I don’t have to “know I know” there is an external world, in order to simply “know” there is an external world. If my belief in the external world is, in fact, caused by reasons that are properly sensitive to the truth of the matter (i.e., sensitive to the reality of situation in question) and they are properly causing my belief then I am justified even if I can’t justify the reasons for my reasons etc. As long as my beliefs are catching hold of the reality train at some point I can be justified even if I can’t describe all the cars pulling my car all the way up to the engine (which may be infinitely many cars ahead).
Consider that someone may get confused if you ask, how do you know Abe Lincoln was born on February 12th? Or how do you know some country, you never personally visited, exists? They may not be able to fully explain all the reasons they believe Jamaica exists or that Abe Lincoln was born on February 12th, but they can still know those things. On the causal theory they are “justified” in believing those things so long as the reasons they believe in them tracks the truth of the matter. So I believe Jamaica exists because I read about it in various books and talked to people that visited it etc. Can I defend all of those reasons to believe and thus “know I know”? Do I know the people I talked to really visited Jamaica and the books really track to the existence of Jamaica? Even if I couldn’t explain how I know all those reasons are good reasons I could still know Jamaica exists, if my belief was caused by at least some of the people, who say they went there, actually going there and the people who wrote about it in books did so for reasons that tracked the truth of Jamaica existing. Thus my belief was caused by reasons that properly tracked the truth that Jamaica exists and was therefore justified.
Now assume, I came to believe Abe Lincoln’s birthday was February 12th solely because I looked at how the tea leaf residue in the bottom of my otherwise empty cup were positioned. Then I would not have a justified true belief that February 12th is Abe Lincoln’s birthday. I may believe it, and it may be true that is his birthday, but how my tea leaves ended up positioned in my cup has no intelligible causal relationship/connection to that being the date of Abe Lincoln’s birth. Therefore, on the causal theory of knowledge my reasons to believe do not “track the truth” of the matter and are thus unjustified.
Now causal theories and tracking theories of knowledge have their own interesting problems. But whether or not these theories can completely define knowledge, they do highlight some aspects of rational belief that are hard to deny. Specifically, if someone believes X for evidential reason Y and we see no intelligible connection between the truth of X and Y it is very hard to say Y is a good evidential reason to believe X. This is why most people agree that tasseography is not a good reason to hold a belief that Abe Lincoln was born on February 12th. We also might agree that because I drank two cups of coffee today that is not a good reason to believe the democrats did well in the midterm elections. If our evidence for believing something is not sensitive to the truth of the matter (or track the truth of the matter) then it is not a good reason to believe it. Now tasseographists might disagree with me about the connection between the position of tea leaves and other events. But even a tasseographist would likely agree, it is irrational to say “yes I agree my drinking two cups of coffee today is completely unconnected to whether democrats did well in the midterm, but I still believe my drinking two cups of coffee is a valid evidentiary reason to believe that the democrats will win the midterm election.”
Now it is true that relevant evidence might in fact have no connection to the question of reality we consider it relevant to. For example maybe someone was driving a red car just like mine outside the bank and it has no connection with me possibly robbing the bank. But if a person isn’t sure it is not my car they still may think it may have been my car then that might still rationally be considered some evidence against me. But this is the important point. If you are sure that it was not my red car but someone else’s red car, and you believe it being there had nothing to do with the bank robbery in question, then it would be irrational for you to think the red car being there is good reason to believe I robbed the bank.
Ok that took a while but these nuances are important to grasp before we get to the examples Rauser uses and how they would affect the moral argument. Let’s see how he ties skepticism about the external world with skepticism about morality:
“In the same way that we find ourselves carried along by the basic deliverances of our sense perception, so we find ourselves carried along by the basic deliverances of our moral intuition/ perception. In the same way that our experience of seeing the sun and feeling its warmth on our skin gives rise to the immediate and irresistible belief in an external world that we perceive, a world that includes a sun that shines and gives warmth, so our experience of contemplating particular instances of human moral action such as “God commanded Tom to hack apart his son in a devotional sacrifice” gives rise to an immediate perception regarding the moral status of the act: No, this is wrong! And just as the idealist’s arguments for skepticism about the external world will be insufficient to overcome our conviction that the external world exists, so the moral skeptic’s arguments that there is no objective moral value beyond our personal opinions may very well prove insufficient to overcome our immediate, intuitive sense that some actions like devotional child sacrifice are always wrong.”
Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 63-64). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.
Ok so first our “moral perceptions” are not like our five empirical senses in very important ways. For one we have a model of how our empirical senses work. We think we “see” when light from the external world connects with an object and then our eye etc. The same is true of sound. We believe that sound waves cause air to vibrate and that contacts our ear drums etc. If we were to believe we were dreaming these perceptions we would no longer think we actually saw or felt a sun that exists in the external world. We would see that the mechanism that we think causes our belief about things like the sun or our hands was not at work, and so having a dream where we sense the sun or our hands is not a reason to actually believe the sun we thought we saw in a dream actually exists. Of course, what we seem to perceive in dreams might exist in some world! It is at least theoretically possible that there is a world in some galaxy that corresponds with what we sense in dreams. Such a world would have anxious people walking through school halls late and lacking proper clothing etc. But there is not even an intelligible theory of how our dream experiences would, track with such a possible existing world. We believe our dreams are caused by things other than and independent from this other possibly existing world. We don’t even have a theory of how our dream experience could be sensitive to the truth of this possibly existing world. So it seems irrational to think our dream experiences actually track the truth of an external world. Just like it seems irrational to think the position of our tea leaves tracks the truth/reality of when Abe Lincoln was born.
So what is the explanation of how our “moral senses” track the objective reality of moral truth? Without any sort of explanation it seems we would be in much the same boat as the person who believes their dream tracks some far off objectively real world. It seems very much a case of special pleading. You don’t think what appears to be senses in dreams correspond with a real objective reality, but you do about your moral senses even though in neither case can someone offer any sort of causal model of how the two might even possibly connect/relate.
Ok perception is not accurate but what about “intuition”? I agree intuition seems the better description but it still has the same problem. What is the connection between moral reality of what should happen and our beliefs about what should happen? What is interesting is that naturalistic/scientific proposals abound about how we came to hold the beliefs about morality that we do. For example, cooperation lead to increased survival. Or certain other behaviors lead to more or less “fitness.” The problem with these explanations is they never explain how that connects/tracks with “moral truth.” The objective moral truth plays no role in what caused our beliefs. We know this because those theories don’t even require that there be an actual moral truth! Those theories work just fine if moral anti-realism is true. So all of these theories are exactly like the tasseography in the sense that the reasons we hold the belief does not track the truth in any intelligible way.
The problem for atheists is all of their explanations about what is moral do not seem to track to (or be sensitive to) moral reality. They have explanations that these beliefs about morality helped us survive and reproduce etc. But that is like saying we believe that we dream we are in the sun because these neurons are triggered and that creates the sensation of being in the sun. In the case of dreams we see that is unrelated to actually being in the sun and so do not think that dream experience is a valid reason to think we are in fact in the sun. But when it comes to morality they just try to talk past this issue.
But let’s pursue this. To properly appreciate the skeptics argument it is best not to assume situations where you are awake (as GE Moore does) but instead consider situations where we assume you are dreaming. I have had dreams that I believe were influenced by the objective world around me. I may have even dreamt I was in the sun when in fact I was laying in the sun. It is at least possible that my being in the sun caused me to have the dream experience of being in the sun. But in that case my reasons to believe I was in the sun when I was dreaming at least tracks to an intelligible explanation where the truth of being in the sun plays an important role.
Consider this situation. Someone wakes up and sees that there is a faint sunlight in an otherwise mostly dark room. Now he just woke up and based on the time he knows the sun just recently rose. He also had a dream experience that he was in sunlight, but it may be unclear if he had the dream experience before or after the sun rose. But let’s say the dream experience did in fact happen after the sun rose so there was a dim beam touching his calf at the time he had the dream. Now let’s say he believes the dream experience justifies his belief that sunlight was in fact touching him at the time he had the dream experience.
So did he “know” the sun was touching him at the time of the dream experience? It would have been true that the sun was touching him at the time of the experience. In fact there was a dim beam of light touching his calf. He also believed the sun was touching him in his dream state. But is he justified in believing that the sun was touching him based on the experience? I think most of us would say no. But ok let’s indulge the possibility that the sunlight may have caused the dream experience. You can increase the amount of sunlight as you wish. I think at some point many people would say ok it is possible that a certain amount of sunlight may have been a causative factor in his having the dream experience he did. But whether the actual sun caused the experience is key here right? Consider two different views:
He says yes I think the sun touching me was a causative factor in my having the dream experience, therefore my dream experience justifies my belief that I was in fact in sunlight at the time of the dream experience.
2. He says no I do not believe the actual sunlight on my calf had any effect on my dream experience of being in the sun. Yet I still believe I was actually in the sun at the time of my dream experience because I had the dream experience and it was very vivid! The experience simply overwhelms any doubts.
In the first case we may think the person is wrong about the actual sunlight causing his dream, but if true his view is at least in some sort of ballpark of being rational. But the second situation is someone that seems completely irrational. Most of the atheist theories of how we came to hold the moral beliefs we do are like the second case. They do not require any moral reality, at all, let alone a link between moral reality and our beliefs about morality. When we consider that morality is addressing how things “should be” it is difficult to even imagine how this non-material thing could possibly be interacting with us in naturalistic way that causes our moral beliefs.
Atheists have argued against Plantinga by saying that we can take our beliefs a mostly true because true beliefs would promote survival. I think this may have some traction when we are talking about physical things and thus dealing with Plantinga’s more general argument. Perhaps implicit in beliefs about evolution is the belief that having true beliefs about physical things promotes survival. I think that is where Plantinga has his debate. But I think I can grant that argument because moral truths have no physical indicia. Morality deals with what should be and what should be is not a physical thing that could possibly be physically interacting with us causing our beliefs. I have addressed this in some other blogs.
Now “moral naturalists” disagree with me on that. They are a type of moral realist that thinks we can know what is moral based on simply looking at natural facts about what is. But even if I concede that, they still have a huge problem. They offer no explanation of how that works. I can concede that a certain collection natural facts simply is a moral evil. Just like water is H2O. But without any sort of idea how we are categorizing some sets of facts as good and others as evil, and how that relates to the truth of the matter based on moral reality, this view is a dead end for people that want to live a moral life.
For the person facing moral questions on a daily basis this view is useless. It is like telling a person that needs to clean a flooded basement “I bet there will one day be a machine we can use to easily and thoroughly clean this in under an hour with very little effort.” Ok maybe that is true, but for right now that is not helpful in the least. It is unclear what I am supposed to do with the idea that maybe we can someday figure out how moral properties reduce to natural properties. Maybe someday we will be able to build flying saucers that can fly us around the world in minutes! For those of us that need to get somewhere today it is no help. Until there is some idea of how that works “moral naturalism” is a dead end for someone trying to know how to live a moral life.
Christianity not only provides a framework for how we would rationally know right from wrong, it also gives us useful information on how we know what is and is not moral as we live our lives.
I know this blog is already too long but I would like to offer one more example courtesy of a philosopher named John Pollock. Consider a situation where you are in a factory and see widgets that all appear to be red. Now a guide tells you that all the widgets appear red due to a special lighting in the factory. He says that the lighting would make the widgets appear red regardless of their actual color. By actual color I mean how they would appear in normal white daylight. Assume never see the widgets with a different light source. Do you believe the widgets are actually red? Well that might depend on how much you believe your guide. If you believe what he says about the light in the factory it would seem you are not justified in believing the widgets are actually red. If you don’t really believe the lighting could actually make them all appear red as they appear to you then you might be justified in thinking they are actually red.
Consider these two views:
Person A believes what the guide says and so believes that regardless of the objects actual color they would still appear the same redness as they do. Nevertheless person A believes the widgets are actually red because of “the experience” he has of them appearing red.
Person B does not believe the guide. He thinks that there is no way the objects would all appear so red based on the lighting alone. He believes that if they were not actually red they would not appear as they do.
Now it seems to me that person A is irrational. But person A might tell person B we both believe the widgets are red because they appear red to us. But person B might say yes that is true but our basis for trusting that what appears a certain way, is actually as it appears is different in important respects. Namely I think my experience is of seeing red is connected to (tracks) the objective reality of this widget being red in a way that you deny.
I think this is exactly what happens concerning the moral argument. I get asked don’t I agree it would would be “bad” if humans went extinct or needlessly suffered? Or it that it is good if we flourish? And yes I agree with those conclusions but I think my moral intuition is connected to (tracks) moral truth in a way atheists. Namely I think a creator designed my moral intuition in a way that tracks moral truth. They deny this designer. The atheist explanation of how we came to hold these beliefs intuitions does not require that these moral truths are even true – and indeed there is a very significant relationship between belief in moral anti-realism and atheism.
Once I recognized that these non-religious explanations of our moral intuitions have no intelligible causal link with moral reality I could not unlearn it. I simply can’t be the person that fully believes that there is an objectively existing world in some galaxy that corresponds with my dream experiences when I have no explanation of how that would even work. If the explanations of my dreams involves no causal articulable connection to this other world that may objectively exist in some other galaxy then I can’t see how that experience is evidence such a world exists. That is true regardless of how vivid or compelling the dream experience seems. The same is true for my moral experiences. They may be very strong experiences/feelings but if none of the theories connects them with moral reality I just don’t think it is rational to say they are good evidence of what moral reality requires. I can’t just pretend I didn’t see that step getting skipped over.
Now that does not mean moral realism is false. Saying moral realism is false would be like saying we know there are no other objective worlds where people have experiences in other galaxies. I don’t think this argument does that. I think it is therefore wrong to think this argument supports the view that moral anti-realism is more likely. It raises what I consider insurmountable difficulties for atheist moral realists, but rejecting moral realism seems uncalled for. Moreover, the various moral anti-realist positions have huge problems of their own. I talked about a few of them here. https://trueandreasonable.co/2019/06/25/ad-hoc-reasoning-suits-moral-subjectivism-and-anti-realism/
I a drafted a blog dealing with error theory/nihilism. I have at least one more blog on Rauser’s book and then I will post that.
In the New Testament Jesus tells many stories. For the most part there is no reason to think he is even attempting to give literal historical events. For example, he talks of people getting the same wages even though they start working later than others. He tells the story of a person allowing another to watch his property. He tells a story of someone selling everything for a pearl. He tells a story of a wedding and a prodigal son etc. etc.
If he told those stories today I feel like many people (including Christians) would interrupt and say “wait a second, whose wedding was this? Are you talking about the Jefferson’s wedding because that wasn’t what happened!” Or “wait a second are you talking about John? Yeah sure he did some bad things but he didn’t actually get his father’s inheritance early!” I mean he does not always start his story by making it clear to everyone this is not offering a literal history. (Keep in mind the subtitles are not part of the actual scriptural text) Could the story of the prodigal son be literally and historically true? It seems possible. If we found out it was true in a literal and historical sense what difference would it make? Absolutely nothing. The actual literal history is completely irrelevant to the point of the story.
When we read scripture we do not think God is telling us these stories because God is randomly picking various historical facts that he wants us to memorize. No the stories of the old testament, just like the stories Jesus told, are told because there are meanings that God is trying to convey. Whether the story is historically true or false is often completely irrelevant. Take the “cloud of witnesses” from Hebrews. The author goes through scripture and offers stories that God gave us to understand how he will reward faith. Just like Jesus gives stories that help us understand other aspects of God. Whether the events actually happened or not does not change the point of the stories.
But then does that mean it is always irrelevant if a story is fictional? No. The point of the story helps us know whether it is important that the story is fictional or not. And sometimes in scripture the author is explicit. For example in Luke and John they explicitly offer their intentions. Luke starts out with this:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
John explains that that purpose of telling us about Jesus Miracles:
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe b that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
So it would be odd to say John did not intend at least some of his stories of signs to be taken literally. I think there many questions that are addressed in the bible but modern readers tend to read the bible as though it is only addressing one. Here are just a few questions the authors seek to answer:
Is there a God?
Is Jesus a reliable mouthpiece of God?
How should we understand our relationship to God and others?
What does God want us to do?
Modern readers seem hung up on the first question but I think that is very rarely what the author is addressing. John makes it explicit that the second question is something he is addressing. I believe the other gospels and NT scriptures have that intent as well.
I think much of the Old Testament human authors are rarely dealing with questions 1 and 2. They already believe in God so they have moved on from the first question. They do not know much about Jesus yet so it would not be informative to establish he is a reliable source of God’s will. But three and four would be important. But as we have seen from Jesus’s parables it is irrelevant if the stories that convey answers to questions three and four are literally true. So the literal historical truth of the OT stories are in fact largely irrelevant.
But what about the New Testament? Well two seems to be a very important message of the New Testament writers. So how can they establish that Jesus is a reliable source of God’s will? Let’s just think this through for ourselves – without a bible. If I were to say I am a mouthpiece of God, how could I give evidence of that? One obvious way would be to perform a miracle. This would be a sign from God that yes I am not just like every other person but God is singling me out. But, of course, there is nothing miraculous about just making up fictional stories of miraculous events. So the only way to serve that purpose of proving I am singled out by God would be is if I actually performed miracles. That is why the New Testament is understood as intending to tell actual history.
This is not just me cherry picking what I will decide to read literally or what I won’t. I am just applying common sense to the text.
How do we know when an author intends their writing to be taken as literal historical fact? I think the best way to tell is to ask the author. But when we are reading the bible not only can we no longer ask the author – we may not even know who the author was and indeed there may be several. But that doesn’t mean there is not evidence which might strongly suggest what the author intended. We can get an idea based on context.
For example I have suggested that when the author of Genesis speaks of “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” that is strong evidence that he is not talking about a literal fruits and trees that we might find in our neighborhood.
On the other hand when John says “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe b that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” https://www.biblehub.com/niv/john/20.htm The author is explicitly telling us his purpose of writing about these signs/miracles. That is he wants to tell us of them so that we may believe Jesus is the son of God. Of course, that implies Jesus really did miracles. The author’s ability to make up miracle stories would not be a reason we should believe Jesus is the Son of God. Only Jesus’s actual ability to work miracles would be evidence that he is the Son of God. So that context is strong evidence that the author of John intends at least some of his miracle stories to be taken as literal and historical factual occurrences.
Luke also tells us about his purpose and so we can gleen his intent to give actual facts from the work itself as well. But of the books of the bible this clear statement of intent seems to be more the exception than the rule. So we are left to rely on less probative evidence.
In my last post I argued that we shouldn’t feel we must know what the author was trying to communicate and there is no reason to presume that the intent was to give literal history. Rauser is sympathetic to non-literalist readings however he has some issues with adopting a non-literalist reading. Here I want to address what I consider what Rauser considers the biggest obstacle to interpreting these old testament passages in other than as literal historical truth. He says:
“A particularly effective way to see the problem brought to life is with the great Hall of Faith chapter of Hebrews 11 which seeks to inspire the contemporary reader with illustrations of devotion from past saints. The story begins with Abel who provided a faithful offering to God (v. 4). The narrative then recounts the faith of a long list of saintly figures including Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Rahab and many, many others. The writer concludes, “These were all commended for their faith” (v. 39). Needless to say, the whole point of the writer to the Hebrews is that these are real people who did real things which are exemplary of faith and thus which provide inspiring guides to the disciple in our own day. Thus, if these stories are really just that, stories, mere historical fiction, then the entire chapter is evacuated of its motivational gravitas.
To illustrate, a baseball coach who wants to inspire his team may pump them up with the great achievements of Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Jackie Robinson. But he will not spend any time recounting the achievements of Roy Hobbs because Mr. Hobbs is a fictional character from the film The Natural (and the 1952 novel of the same name). You might invoke Hobbs to illustrate a point, but if you want to inspire an athlete you tell them the story of another real athlete: you don’t tell them a fiction. By the same token, if you want to inspire a real spiritual athlete, you tell them stories of other real spiritual athletes who accomplished great things: you don’t tell them a fiction. Why does the writer of Hebrews refer to the actual collapse of the walls of Jericho (v. 30) and the actual faith of Rahab (v. 31) if not to inspire an equivalent faith response in the reader?”
Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 206-207). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.
Ok first I would concede the point that at least to our modern mind telling a story about a real person seems to be more inspirational than telling the story of a fictional person. After all there was a time when it seemed every movie would say something like “based on a true story” and the purpose of that line was to no doubt try to make the movie somehow more compelling. So I am not saying his reason supplies no evidence. But I do want carefully consider each of the claims he makes and how much weight they should carry.
In my law school ethics class, we all had to watch the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. And in particular we focused on the lawyer Atticus Finch and how he dealt with ethical issues as a lawyer. There is no question the purpose was to inspire us to act ethically as future lawyers. I had read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and Atticus Finch played an inspirational role in my desire to be a lawyer. As I was thinking of this example I actually started to wonder if Atticus Finch was a real lawyer or at least based on a real lawyer. But before I looked it up I asked myself if I would be any more or less inspired by him if I found out he was “based on a real person.” And I honestly decided it wouldn’t matter.
I think it is a mistake to underestimate the role fiction plays in motivating and forming who we are. If I set religion aside, I suspect that most of those that inspired me are first and foremost the actual people I have encountered in life, then second stories of fictional people, and then third historical people.
Now fictional heroes become especially important when we consider these are fictional heroes whose stories were chosen by God. Whether Abel actually existed is completely unimportant to the message God is trying to convey in the story of Cain and Able. In Hebrews the author seems not so concerned that the people are becoming atheists. Rather he seems to be addressing a community of religious Jews that would know these stories. They need inspiration to help them through difficult times. They are not looking for proof that God exists. They seem to know God exists and they also seem to assume that God gave them these stories in order to help them understand what he expected from them and how he would respond. That is what was important.
They want to know that God will see them through if they continue to be faithful. Faith is belief and trust in God. They seem to mostly be concerned about the trust part. Whether these characters actually existed is irrelevant. If God tells me I should act like Atticus Finch and I will be rewarded then it doesn’t matter one bit if Atticus Finch was a real person.
Notice the last line of my quote from Rauser where he says “Why does the writer of Hebrews refer to the actual collapse of the walls of Jericho (v. 30) and the actual faith of Rahab (v. 31) if not to inspire an equivalent faith response in the reader?” I have read these passages from Hebrews several times and I never remembered the author talking about the “actual” collapse of the walls of Jericho or the “actual” faith of Rahab. So I reread to see if the passage talks about or otherwise suggests these are actual historical events or if they just repeat the story. In fact the author never says the walls “actually” fell or that there was an “actual” faith of Rahab. The author just repeats the story.
“30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.
31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient”
If I say “Atticus Finch argued in his closing argument that Tom Robbins was innocent because the victim suffered wounds to the right side of her face and he was right handed and also had limited use of his left hand.” I am not saying Atticus Finch actually existed and there was an actual trial of Tom Robbins etc. No I am simply repeating the story. There is nothing in my quoted statement that should make you think I believe I am retelling “actual” historical events. Hebrews is no different.
Now to be fair Rauser gave the “gravitas” explanation for why he thought the author of Hebrews intended these stories to be taken literally. (I addressed that argument above by explaining fictional characters can be motivational) So he may not be thinking that just because the author of Hebrews is retelling the stories that means the author of Hebrews thought they were literal historical fact. But I often see that when some other author of scripture repeats a story from some other part of scripture some people will try to argue that proves the later author thought it was a literal historical event. For example, if Jesus refers to Adam and Eve some people will try to say that proves he thought they were real people. But really Jesus may just be recounting the story from scripture.
When that happens the person arguing for a literal reading is often just projecting his own interpretation on the other scripture writer. The person is assuming the question in dispute. They think we should interpret the story literally so they think anyone retelling the story must be intending to tell it in a literal sense. But that is the question we are trying to answer!
Why do modern readers tend to assume a literal interpretation? At least two reasons lead to this assumption, first the printing press and second, Sola Scriptura. The printing press and later technology allowed us to record and reproduce a huge number of actual historical events. This meant that we can learn a large quantity of actual literal history. This means our heroes can often be real people because we have a huge catalogue of people to draw on for whatever positive trait we want to highlight. I admit in some ways that is preferable to simply fictional heroes. (but it also has drawbacks) It also means that much of what we learn is intended to be taught as literal history. It is far from clear that assumption applied in the ancient past.
Like I said if you want to know the intent the best way is to ask the author. Certainly, whoever first told the story of Adam and Eve knew it was not literal history based on eyewitnesses. It is hard to believe people who heard the story for the first time would have thought it was some sort of historical story based on eyewitness accounts. If someone told you about conversations the very first humans had wouldn’t you wonder how they could know? Again the ancient people may not have understood science but they could look at all the people around them and realize that they were pretty far removed from the very first humans. They weren’t all born yesterday. And like I said of course the original person telling the story of Adam and Eve knew it was not literal facts from eyewitnesses.
The other reason I think modern readers tend to interpret scripture literally is because of Sola Scriptura. A theme of the reformation was the bible was sufficient and we really don’t need anyone to tell us what it means. Well it seems the answer is somewhere in the middle. People can learn a huge amount from reading the bible on their own. But also it turns out there are many different possible interpretations. And that is well evidenced by all the different churches that interpreted scripture so differently than other churches they found they had to break off from the others.
What to do? Well Martin Luther had already decided he would not change his position unless you could convince him based on scripture alone. This statement was so romanticized there was no turning back. So appealing to church fathers or Tradition was out of the question. Unfortunately, the disagreements were from interpretations of scripture itself. So certain rules of interpretation started to come into favor. One of those rules has to do with defaulting to a literal reading – which I believe martin Luther endorsed.
Was this rule based on information we learned about ancient peoples that were writing or telling these stories over a millennium and a half before these rules? I doubt it. I suspect these rules have more to do with us imposing our beliefs and desires on the ancients rather than bending our beliefs and desires to the intentions of the ancient authors of scripture. But despite precious little evidence that this is actually how the ancient authors intended their works to be read this default to literal history has gained popularity. Rauser notes that it is mainly after the reformation that literal readings of some of the old testament passages were used to justify wars. That is not surprising to me.
In future blogs I will address how Rauser deals with these issues as well as some problems with how certain Catholics view these issues.
Randal Rauser wrote a very good book about Old Testament Passages.
I mostly agree with him and I am glad he wrote the book. I do not intend to do a review of the book as much as do a few blogs where I talk about a few places where I diverge from his views. Do not think because I am disagreeing with the book I think it is not worth reading. It covers many important issues.
One topic is how we might interpret Old Testament passages. I definitely take what he calls the “spiritualized” approach to some of the Old Testament. I believe Origen used the term “spiritualize” to describe his own non- literal reading of scripture and indeed I draw many of the same conclusions Origen did. However, I would simply say I am taking a “non-literalist” approach to many parts of the old testament.
I think saying I “spiritualize” the text suggests that I promote a certain particular interpretation. Sometimes I do, but often I don’t have any interpretation other than to say I would not take that passage literally. If I had to choose how to interpret the Old Testament passage of the Canannites I would choose the method chosen by Origen. (I was not aware he interpreted it the same way I do until I read it in Rauser’s book) But I am not saying I believe it is, more likely than not, the true intent of the author. I just think the probability that Origen’s interpretation is correct is higher than the probability a literalist reading, or other options, are correct/true.
Over all, I am happy to admit I am not sure what message was intended by particular passages of the old testament – including that one. And indeed much of the old testament may not even be true or false. It can be artistic. Is a poem or work of art “true or false”? Scripture may be intended to invoke feelings and mindsets rather than just offer literally true and false facts about the world. How would those feelings and mindsets have played a role for cultures distantly removed from us in time is often just an exercise in wild speculation.
It is for this reason that I do not find fault with the Church for omitting certain parts of the Old Testament from the lectionary. If we don’t know what message the Holy Spirit is trying to convey why would we spend time on that passage as opposed to other passages that are more clear? Christ is our guide and he was repeatedly challenged with this or that particular passage from the old testament. Again and again he reinforced what the fundamental take away of the old testament was.
He did not get into the weeds about what this Hebrew word meant and how we can understand it this or that way. So it is just not concerning to me that I must admit I am not sure what specific message the Holy Spirit was trying to communicate in a particular passage. And often I think we don’t know very much at all about what the Holy Spirit was doing to guide people.
Let’s say you find this song.
Further assume you know nothing about the context of the song, you don’t even know who wrote it let alone what the political issues of the day were let alone what his political or religious views were. You can at least translate the song and when you translate it you can see that some of the lyrics are things like, “We’re moving night and day to go to Meadowlands / We love Meadowlands.” Based on the beat and the lyrics you might think the writer of the song really liked the meadowlands and was happy to move.
In reality, it was written as a protest song in South Africa protesting the forced move many black people had to make from Sophiatown to the Meadowlands. South Africa had censorship of music that went against government policy. So the music was deliberately upbeat to suggest to the government it was in favor of the move. But in fact the upbeat nature just added to the irony and sarcasm that was intended by the author Strike Vilakazi, and his audience that heard it.
Some officials in the South African government took it literally and so they played the song on the radio. Those government employees were living in the context but still misunderstood. The joke was on them and that inside joke shared by a community makes the song inspiring. But how do we know this? We know this because the song was written less than a century ago at time long after the printing press and even video cameras that documented the history and intent of the author. But what if you just found this song without any of that context. What if you didn’t even know who wrote the song, all you could do was translate it? Almost certainly you would get a completely wrong message.
The way this song played a role in South African history is wonderful. I might even call it historical scripture. Is the song “true”? Did people misunderstand the song then, and might they misunderstand the song later if they lack the context? Yes but their ignorance adds to the songs brilliance.
When we read the Old Testament we should not pretend we know all the meanings or purposes the writers had in mind if, in fact, we know precious little. But some people will insist they know God wants them to read it literally as a default. How they know this I have no idea. Instead I think the view of interpreting scripture and other material literally has come about as a consequence of sola scriptura and also the printing press. I will explain that in another blog.
Origen is one of the earliest commentators on Old Testament passages whose works still exist. He was onve of our closest in time sources to understanding what these authors would have intended. He did not interpret them literally. My own approach is I might read a passage where “God says” kill every soldier, and I think ok, but, if this is literal how do we know this is God saying this and what does he look like etc. But ok maybe we can get past that. But then “God says” kill every male even if they are not a combatant. And there I think hmm that seems questionable based on other writings like the fifth commandment not to mention what God said and did when he came to earth as Jesus. But then I read “God says” and kill every woman. At this point I am definitely thinking the author is up to something other than literal history. More likely than not this is not simple recording of literal history. And then “God says” kill every infant! And here I am definitely thinking God is communicating in a non-literal way. Beyond reasonable doubt this is not literal. But then even if you are still not understanding this is not intended as literally what God said the author writes God also said kill every one of the enemies donkeys! Ok at this point unless your name is Dwight Schrute you have to be thinking the author is up to something other than a simple transcript of what God literally said.
Is the author making an inside joke about certain hard line priests/rabbis/political leaders of his time? Would certain rabbis misunderstand the intent that more sensible Jews/Rabbis understood as happened with the song meadowlands? I am not necessarily saying that. I am saying we don’t know. And I am certainly saying that I think that is much more probable than the intent was that he literally believed God thought we should take vengeance on the farm animals of our enemies. I also believe that inside jokes against arrogant powerful leaders is likely one of the oldest forms of entertainment and expressions of solidarity for oppressed people. If it was intended as a jab at certain overzealous preachers of the day I can see why it was handed down as a classic.
My own view – if I had to choose one – is that the author was using symbolism where the canannites represented sin. My view is similar to Origen’s view. But even that I do not think is more likely than not true. I just think that is more probable than a sarcastic interpretation. Both of those interpretations are not combined to be over 50% in my mind. But either the sarcastic or symbolic interpretations seems much more likely than a literalist interpretation. The biggest part of this pie graph is – we really can’t say what to make of this passage.
I often hear/read that authors of this literature lived in a time where science was non-existent and therefore ignorance was everywhere. We hear that most people could not read and write and therefore they must have been very stupid. I have read many times claims that people in ancient times thought things like thunder was made by Thor banging his hammer. And they thought the world was on the back of a tortoise etc. And I wonder how do these people know what the ancient authors thought? Today we tend to read this literally and so we project our views on the author. But how do we know they interpreted these stories literally? And if I am able I will ask the person making the claim how he knows that. Rauser offers some decent reasons in support of a literalist interpretation, (which I will address in another blog) but for the most part there is no response other then they repeat what is said and assume it is to be taken literally.
But If some myth author suggested that the earth rested on the back of a tortoise and some person asked the author “what does that toroise stand on?” or “well how does the tortoise get enough water to drink” I think the author of these myths would not praise this person hung up on literalism for their insight, but rather shake their head and possibly consider them someone that is difficult to communicate ideas to. I don’t think the ancients writing myths and stories that were handed down for centuries in any culture were just dumb people. In particular I certainly do not think that of the ancient Jews that wrote the stories that were considered scripture for their culture were dumb.
People often assume they are smarter than others. They especially think other people distant in time, culture or space lack their understanding. I really think we apply this prejudice to ancients, in ways that are not unlike what the South African apartheid government did to black people. The joke was on the government leaders. The culture that revered the books of the Old Testament was not a culture of idiots. But I think there is a certain prejudicial arrogance that allows some modern people to think their literature really was just crude ignorance in word form.
The bible has 73 books. We should not claim we know what every passage means. It is ok to say we don’t know what that particular passage means. Just because all scripture is good for instruction 2 Timothy 3:16 that does not mean every passage is good for every person at every time in history. It may very well be that parts of the bible were revered for reasons that are lost. Denying this possibility is not going to help anyone gain understanding.
It is for this reason that I would push back on Randall Rauser’s view that we shouldn’t “omit” certain Old Testament passages. I think there are Old Testament passages that we do not really understand well at all. I think they are properly left out of church lectionaries and Sunday school. Why read scripture when we don’t know what to make of it? Especially when there is so much scripture that we can understand and provides wonderful instruction in how to live in the modern world?
But people might say well how could God let this happen? Why wouldn’t God make sure people always understood what the author was communicating? And I would respond, why should he? God reveals himself differently to people at different times. Why would we assume we need exactly the same messages people of a different time and place needed?
And anyway the answer is that in reality the meaning of written words in our world/reality does often get lost. The written words may stay but the full meanings are often lost not just in scripture but other writings as well. So what would we expect God to do to help us not be lead astray? Well Scripture tells us 1) he wrote his law on our hearts as a guide. 2) He created a Church, and 3) if you are Christian you also believe God came down from heaven and told us the important takeaways from the old testament. I don’t think it is reasonable to ignore God’s commentary on the Old Testament just because you decided literal readings should be the default. Start with God’s commentary on the Old Testament. If someone’s literal interpretations puts them at loggerheads with the author’s interpretation of his own work we can acknowledge the literal interpretation is wrong. We should do the same with scripture.
This blog is primarily about my own thoughts on what it means o be reasonable or rational. In looking at that question it can be asked what is the goal we are rationally pursuing? My goal is to live rightly. Others seem to put their concerns on other things as I discussed here. But for me my goal is to live rightly as best I can. And by live rightly I mean my goal is to live morally as best I can. And yes I mean “real” morality not subjective morality or something we just make up. Do I have other goals? Yes but the goal of living rightly is the most important one that trumps all other concerns.
I would think many people would agree with that goal although not all. But even if you agree, the question is how do we do that? Follow the guidance of Mohamed? of Christ? other religious leaders? of Sam Harris or Peter Singer? I have argued that due to the nature of moral truth it is not something we can learn by science. I think the process is much more of a mixture of instinct, emotion, intuition, and reason/logic. But reason alone can’t get us there – we need starting premises and we need to weigh different values – logic won’t give those starting premises or weights. From my own observations and studies of history as well as other fields I think it is silly to think another natural person will give us guidance unless they are getting it from a supernatural source.
But how sure do we need to be there is an actually way to live? Is there a burden of proof that real morality exists? Should we or even can we believe things if they do not seem “more probable than not”? etc. I have written this analogy that I believe can help people understand my view and understand the importance I place in living rightly.
Imagine you come to realize you are lost in a large desert and you are short on water so your time is limited. You see a woman and she says you need to go this way follow me. Now do you believe her? Maybe you ask “why do you think I should go this way?” And she doesn’t answer. Maybe she looks shifty or is even in a prison uniform so you think maybe she is a criminal. Do you think the direction she is going is “more likely than not” the true way you should go? Does it matter if you believe her in a technical sense of “it is more likely than not true that she is going in the correct direction”? I don’t think it matters. I think the only question is whether it is possible she is better informed than you as to which way to go. Because you know you have no clue, it is certainly possible she is better informed than you are. So if she is possibly better informed it seems rational to follow her.
To the atheists: Maybe you will say I don’t really “believe” her. That is maybe you would say “I don’t think she is more likely than not telling the truth because ‘it is just her say so.’” Or maybe you will say I should “withhold belief.” And here I think we are to some extent questioning what it means to “believe.” But I think you would all agree that you would “take what she said as true” with respect to very important actions in your life. And here one of the most important actions that day will be to walk in a certain direction. So yes I can agree with your view that maybe you don’t “believe” her but I don’t agree that it is rational to walk in a different direction or just sit there waiting for someone else to come before you die of thirst. If you will walk with her until something more certain comes along, I agree. But in the meantime you should follow her.
To Christians: You might say Joe you are not a Christian if you do not believe in God. And by that you may mean I fail to think God’s existence is more likely true than not. I am not always sure what percentage I put on God’s existence. When I tried to calculate it I found it was very hard, and my calculations seemed to vary from day to day for little or no reason. I stopped trying to calculate it a long time ago. Decades ago?
But I will say that if I follow the woman I am having “faith” in her in a very important decision. I think I make very important decisions in my life based on taking Christ as the true guide. Of course, I admit my faith is not perfect, I have not given everything I own to the poor as Christ said one should. And I admit my not being perfect may be due to doubts. But I do pray, I do try to understand and follow scripture I do go to church, I am raising my children in the faith, I try to build love for God and others and I do firmly have faith in Christ more than anything else.
I trust him more than anyone. Do I wish I had more evidence? Yes sometimes I do. If I told you I never wished I had more evidence who do you think I would be fooling? But I also admit I am happy to get the Luke 12:47-48 pass for my behavior due to ignorance. Following Christ is not always easy. I think I am confident enough in Christ, and I don’t necessarily wish to up the ante.
Now I talked about belief and I do agree that when I say I “believe” something it tends to mean that I think it is more likely true than not true. But if we want to understand what Paul or the other scripture writers were getting at when they said “believe” or have “faith” in Jesus I really think they meant something more like what I am doing. That is they want us to walk the walk. Jesus himself often talked how our actions matter. (both our actions in a physical sense but also our actions in forming our conscience.) I have been and still remain firmly in that stage of trying to follow his guidance.
Now it seems pretty clear from “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing…” “belief in Jesus” does requires works. If I were to say “those who believe in Jesus will not do the works he has been doing” it would seem I am pretty clearly contradicting Jesus and teaching the opposite of what he said.
However, to be fair Jesus does not address whether “belief in him” requires other things – at least not here. And some might interpret this passage as suggesting Jesus is saying people will do greater miracles. But I think that is not simply not true to the actual words used.
“Works” is the Greek “erga” which Is translated as works – deeds – actions.
Jesus showed he was from God by both doing good works and performing miracles/signs. If John thought Jesus was referring to his miracles in this passage he would have used the terms that mean miracles. He used different words and it is hard to see why – except for biases – we should say he really meant to use this other word.
Moreover Matthew also makes it clear that Christ is more interested in our doing good and not evil than he is in our performing miracles.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
The debate could go on. But if at the end of my life God says Joe even though you tried to live and form your conscience as Christ instructed (again I admit I could do better and I am sure that will be obvious to all at judgment day but I also think it will be obvious I *tried* to follow Christ, I tried to love my neighbor, I tried to live as he wanted, “I ran the race” as Paul said) but you know the probability you gave of my existing was too often below 50% based on an evaluation of the evidence (or it was below 50% at the instant of your death) so “adios down you go!” Well then ok. I really find that scenario pretty absurd. I think this view only seems to hold so much sway now because of the Catholic Church’s abuses and the Protestant views of “faith alone” and “belief versus works” over-corrected beyond any common sense understanding of scripture.
Again I don’t say it is impossible that my lack of credence/probability has no effect on my behavior I think it does. But really I don’t think there is much more I can do about where I put the evidence of God’s existence. I trust God is fair (if he is not then again what can any of us do?) and if he is fair he will not blame people for things beyond their control. So some can say I am not a Christian or a Catholic. But I think there are other more important things I need to do, to align my mind and actions with the way Christ wants other than just try to keep going over arguments about the probability of God’s existence.
Moreover, I have long ago hit a sort of equilibrium when it comes to those arguments. Not much has drastically changed in the overall weight of these probabilistic arguments in decades and the slight changes that do happen from reading about them are not always favorable to God’s existence anyway! Even when I read an argument that is supposed to be in favor of the probability of God I may find it weak or flawed and it may if anything slightly decrease the probability I put on God existing. I am not saying it should have that effect, but I think it does. In any case the importance of where we draw the line of probability is grossly overblown. It is much more important to understand the context of our decision whether to follow Christ and this desert analogy is the best way to express my understanding of the context.
It is interesting that Catholicism makes it clear that atheism is not always a mortal sin. And the reason for this is Catholic teaching is that God will treat us fairly and not expect us to do things beyond our ability.
Notice I am not saying it is ok to believe God does not exist. I am not adopting the view that no supernatural things like God are possible so Jesus was just a wise person. I think that would be like following the woman even if you knew she was just as lost as you are. I am saying I am adopting a position that Jesus was divine or at least guided by the divine in a way normal people are not guided. That is really all I am looking for. Did he perform every miracle recorded in scripture? That is not important. The important question is whether he performed *even one* miracle which would show that he has moral knowledge beyond other natural humans.
Our situation of how to live rightly is not properly evaluated by believing things that have over a 50% probability of being true. It is a comparison between options. In this scenario it is best to go with the guidance that has the best chance of being correct even if that chance is below 50%.
What about comparing different religions that have some evidence of being supernaturally inspired? It depends on the action and the judgment of the religion as to that action. But when it is the same moral command by different religions such as giving alms to the poor then the percentages reinforce each other. But when there is a disagreement I think we need to weigh the evidence as to which moral guidance is actually from God. And here I think the most direct way to see if something is from God is to compare the evidence of miracles.
If you are a Christian like me and have some doubts about whether the probability of God existing is over 50% then I would recommend the same thing I do and what I recommend to atheists. Keep following Christ until a more sure moral guide to how you should live shows up. And by that I do mean you should consider the chance that Mohammed or Confucius or Sam Harris, or you yourself know better how you should live than Christ. In making that judgment you should consider how anyone might even be able to reliably understand what we should do in a moral sense and who might possibly be in a better informed position. My evaluation of these factors has lead me to be a Christian.
One of the most interesting things I have found in apologetics is the amount of discussion about science. I have been a Catholic since my baptism in 1971 and although I have not gone to mass every Sunday I have gone to mass quite often sometimes even when it is not Sunday. Yet I can not remember a single homily (More or less the Catholic term for Sermon) about Science or how we should understand science. When I read the Gospel I do not find Jesus talking about science. Sundays and major feasts cover about 60% of the Gospels. Considering many events are repeated in the 4 gospels I pretty much have covered Jesus’s teachings several times over in attending mass as well as reading the gospels straight through. Add that to the amount of time I have read various Gospel passages of interest I think it is fair to say I know the messages of the Gospels fairly well. And science has nothing to do with it.
So why when we talk about reasons to be Christian is there so much discussion of science? It is like saying “I try to keep in good shape because I think Rembrandt is the best painter.” It is not that you couldn’t find some way to make a connection, but it would be odd to find discussions about why we should stay fit spending considerable time discussing the merits of The Night Watch.
Christ focused on what we should do during our lives. Fields that have little or nothing to do with how we should act during our lives have very little bearing on Christ’s teaching and thus little bearing on Christianity. Science can help us prolong our lives but it doesn’t address what we should do with the extra time. Christ focused not on how to prolong our lives but what we should do with whatever time we have.
So why is it that when I read articles of why people decided not to be Christian “science” comes up so often? You decided to stop exercising because you no longer like Rembrandts? I think that is indeed how many church going Christians view these issues. I think this is at times bewildering to many atheists who believe Christians are irrational for not adopting their views. But it takes two to tango and there are plenty of Christians that want to dance. For example I enjoy the podcast “unbelievable” but I do think it has a warped focus on “science” discussions.
One thing I have found is that people who stopped being Christians hate it when Christians suggest perhaps they never really understood Christianity. But then what can we do? Argue that Rembrandt is actually great therefore you should exercise? Well as it turns out there seems to be a real cottage industry there. The cottage industry has grown so much, that many times when I visit websites that argue for atheism they seem to *assume* I want to argue about science. Not only that but when I want to discuss issues about why we should live one way or another they act as though that is beside the point. I just have to wonder, what Gospel are they getting this from.
In the last few blogs I have posted about some economic data that I think is relevant to political discussions in the US. I have also commented on Eric’s blog trying to explain why some Christians may vote republican and why Jesus was not a socialist. We quickly got in the weeds about data and why we think our data is more important and why we think the facts we mention are more important etc. I think all of those arguments are important in political debate. But neither Eric nor I are really trying to run a political blog. I want my blog to be more philosophical with an aim to show why being a theist is more intellectually fulfilling and coherent than being an atheist.
That topic will necessarily cover a wide variety of subtopics from meta-ethics, morality, to free will, to science, history, scripture, and yes politics. I think Eric and I would both agree that certain political views are anti-christian. But my disagreement with him was that we shouldn’t consider people who vote for one party or the other as Christians. Each party has a wide range of policies that they adopt and rarely are you going to find a party that perfectly matches our christian views. To the extent we are going to say political views on certain policies are christian or anti-christian those policies need to be considered individually. That is why I think Christians can be Democrats or Republicans or even Socialists.
The Catholic Church I believe has done a decent job (although far from perfect) of navigating these debates in this way. It has taken specific stances on issues that it believes are anti-christian but by and large has not emphasized certain political parties as being “Christ’s party” or the “anti-christ’s party”. It should be obvious to anyone reading the Gospels that Christ was not a politician and he was not preaching a political agenda. This is a difference between Islam and Christianity.
But part of the debate between theists and atheists is more centered around which view leads to better government. This is a much more philosophical question. So you might ask if Jesus was not a politician why would we say a theistic outlook is could lead to a better government? And the answer is because the theist has a fundamentally different view of what they are and how they get rights than the atheist. And this fundamentally different view has led to various issues over the past couple of centuries.
All laws are intended to promote certain goods. So questions of about whether morals exist, what they are, and how we know them, will be foundational for any government that is enforcing laws. Most of my blog explains why I believe an atheistic worldview completely fails to establish a coherent view of morality. Without real morality debating laws is essentially the same as debating whether red or white wine is preferable (subjectivism) or whether batman would beat the silver surfer in a fight (fictionalism).
The foundational belief that all humans are made in the image of God is the great equalizer and has provided a basis to reject slavery, racism and killing humans deemed undesirable. Rejecting the idea all humans are made in the Image of God removes a massive barrier to these practices. Efforts to create any similarly sized barrier have not yet materialized.
Theism supports the belief that our rights come from God and therefore the state can violate them. Atheists will often argue that rights are a creation of the state. This is a very different view and has had catastrophic consequences throughout history.
I am not saying Atheists can not run a government or have a moral society. But since they reject the notion that we are all made in the image of God that can be a severe foundational problem. We see this foundational crack play out in many different policies from racism, life issues, free speech, animal rights versus human rights, the relationship between the government and the individual, the relationship between church and state, and many more.
I have drafted a few blogs about some of these issues and hope to post about them in the future.
But for now I would recommend a pretty interesting interview that touches on some of these concerns. Ben Shapiro is a Jewish political commentator that worked his political views back to philosophy. (Yes many of the philosophical arguments I make would also support the Jewish theism.) Whereas I think I worked out philosophy to its political implications. So I think we sort of came at it from different directions but ended up meeting on some common philosophical ground. Now my goal is not to say people should adopt Ben Shapiro’s political views. I do think he does a good job representing conservative positions but I also think people should make sure they understand the positions of democrats and socialists.
Rather I recommend this video for the more philosophical aspects of his discussion. This is mostly covered in 20:00 to about 47:20 so if you are not interested in his personal life you may want to skip there.
Do we have free will? I don’t have anything more to offer as far as evidence. But I do think it is clear that morality and our justice system is a complete flop if we don’t have free will. Most proponents of determinism agree that, if they are correct, we are not morally responsible/culpable for our actions. But they still might believe there is a right and wrong way to act. So, they don’t completely abandon hope of morality or a rational justice system.
In my opinion determinism allows only a crippled view of morality. It doesn’t matter what direction morality points us we are on a train going wherever we are going and we can’t get off anyway. Our hope for a rational justice system would also seem to rely on dumb luck. How might our meta-ethical views concerning determinism impact our criminal justice system?
Traditionally criminal laws were grounded on four different notions, vengeance, retribution, deterrence and/or rehabilitation. Retribution has replaced vengeance, although sometimes people fail to draw a distinction between the two. I am not aware of anyone who believes in hard determinism but still maintains we should keep retribution as a grounds for our criminal justice system. Retribution is the most important aspect of our criminal justice system but that will be the topic of another post. Here, let’s consider the claim that even if determinism is true we can still pass laws for deterrence or rehabilitation purposes.
For example, Sam Harris says if you are a determinist like him: “We could forget about retribution and concentrate entirely on mitigating harm. (And if punishing people proved important for either deterrence or rehabilitation, we could make prison as unpleasant as required.)”
He like many determinists agree retribution is out. But he claims we can still hope to achieve two other goals of our criminal justice system – rehabilitation and deterrence. Deterrence is the idea that we can prevent people from committing crimes if they think undesirable things will happen to them as a result of those crimes. So we can pass laws with punishments that are unpleasant and thus we make it less likely people will commit crimes. Rehabilitation, at base, is the notion we can do things to criminals such that they will act in a way we want in the future.
So, if we accept determinism and still think deterence and rehabilitation are viable, we find ourselves saying we have no influence or control over our own behavior, but we do have influence and control over other people’s behavior. Traditional wisdom suggests the opposite. Common sense suggests we have more influence over our own actions than we do over other’s actions. Is it possible that we can have no influence over our own actions, yet we are still be able to influence other people’s actions? No, not in any meaningful sense.
I think this is an example of people not fully appreciating the far reaching implications of their position. If determinism is true then even saying “we could make prison as unpleasant as required” plays on an ambiguity and is not actually accurate. The ambiguity is in the term “could.” “Could” can mean: we have the option. Or “could” might mean: it is possible.
In Harris’s usage he seems to suggest “we have the option to make prison as unpleasant as required.” But of course, on determinism we have no options. We must do what we are going to do, and can’t do otherwise. So that meaning of the word “could” leads to a contradiction in his beliefs.
If he means just that “it is possible that we would make prison as unpleasant as required….” Then we might ask so what? It may be possible, but we have no influence over our actions so we have no way to make that possibility a reality.
Our very sense of self is obliterated by determinism. We are like ping pong balls in a lottery machine. Yes we “could” bounce into other balls causing them to jostle and become a winning number. In the sense of “could” that “it is possible” that happens. But, of course, those ping pong balls have no control over themselves so it is not an option they have.
It makes no sense to take the perspective of the ping pong ball. If we throw out free will then we throw out our whole notion of self. It is no longer even sensible or meaningful to think in terms of what we “can” or “could” do. We are just parts of a system that must act however we are going to act.
For those who are interested in the free will debates I highly recommend this set of lectures:
We see everyone claiming to be rational but then we find that they view being “rational” as having a mindset that leads to their conclusions. My second blog was on what it means to be rational in general terms here.
Those views seem correct now just as they have for decades before I wrote that blog. But there is still a tension in what it means to “believe” something that I have been thinking about for decades and I have ultimately concluded that the term “belief” has two different meanings that are essential to our understanding of the term but can sometimes conflict. This blog is intended more as one that explains a problem that I see rather than provide a solution. Hopefully others will have a decent solution or at least understand the problem so their discussions can be a bit nuanced. Here are the two essential aspects of belief that I think most philosophers would at least agree are valid considerations as being part of the term “belief”:
The second view is that a belief is something you properly hold if you believe the evidence supports the conclusion that the claim is more likely than not true.
Although I agree the second definition is a view that seems to capture an essential part of the term “belief” I also think it has problems that I think never get enough press in professional philosophy. I want to discuss the problems I see with the second view but then, in the end, will explain why I think it is hard to just do away with it.
I think this second view of belief leads people to think rational people should be constantly weighing the evidence of each individual belief and then trying to banish those where the evidence does not measure up. Our beliefs are much more complicated than that. That simplified view does not even give us an idea of what beliefs should be examined and which shouldn’t or the pragmatic considerations. For example under that view a rational person could be memorizing facts out of a phone book as much as they investigate whether they should believe it is ok to have an abortion. Obviously being rational means more than just filling our heads with random facts which the evidence suggests are more likely than not true and expunging those beliefs that seem not to have that evidence.
But there is another problem. A logical problem with this view is that many decisions are not exactly binary. Either the Christian God exists or he doesn’t. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean, unless we think the evidence supports that the Christian God exists is more likely than not true, we are irrational for believing in that God. We have to consider the alternatives. And there seem to be many alternatives to believing in the Christian God. There are Gods as explained by other religions. There is the possibility to believe in a God that is not explained by a religion. All of these are possible beyond just either the Christian God exists or no God exists.
So lets analyze a hypothetical situation. Let’s just say I believe:
Christian God is 30%
non-Christian God(s) aggregate to 40% but all individually are less than 30%
no God is 30%?
Sometimes people say that if we don’t have evidence that supports any of those beliefs are more likely than not true then we should “withhold belief.” Sometimes people say that means you are “agnostic” and some people would say that an “atheist” might fit that description as well. The arguments about the terminology seem more pedantic than helpful so I won’t address them.
But ultimately I still have to decide things like:
Am I going to Church Sunday morning?
Am I going to treat human life as though it is a sacred gift from God?
Am I going to treat all humans as though they are made in God’s image?
Am I going to teach my children these things?
These are a few Christian teachings that you are either going to live your life by or you are not. You need to act now.
If you can pause life then ok. But I can’t. So in the meantime my actions are going to reflect my beliefs. And it is hard to understand what it would mean to be agnostic here. Would that mean I sometimes go to church on Sunday? Should I try to go 30% of the time? If I never go to church on Sunday or act in accordance with the Christian teachings then am I not adopting the belief that the Christian God does not exist? And other religions are even less likely so I would act as though there is no God. But in my hypothetical the evidence doesn’t support that belief as being more likely than not true either! Does the agnostic know how to pause his life? Can he teach me how to do that?
Notice these issues arise before I even start to get into the fact that this is only dealing with “theoretical rationality” and not “pragmatic rationality.” It is irrational to ignore pragmatic reasons which can effect what views we should adopt, but these problems arise when we just consider the theoretical model on its own.
But let’s dig a bit deeper. Some say we can act as though something is true even though we don’t believe it is true. That sounds a bit like lying to yourself. But let’s go along with this a bit. We still need to ask which way should I choose to act when the evidence doesn’t support any relevant belief is more likely than not true? Should I just act and adopt views however I feel like at the moment? Ok but are we going to claim that is rational?
I’m sorry but the second view (where we rationally believe something if and only if the evidence supports that it is more likely than not true) is too simplistic and just won’t work in life. Any approach to being rational in a situation must address all the different probabilities and their pragmatic consequences. Yes it’s complicated but oversimplifying rationality only masks the problems.
So I think the first view is important. But the second view does have this going for it. If I say “I believe O.J. Simpson murdered Ron Goldman”, then it seems I am saying it is more likely than not true that OJ Simpson murdered Ron Goldman. It is hard to remove that aspect of the term “belief” without doing an injustice to language. I don’t have a solution, but I think we should understand these two different meanings of “belief” especially when we talk about whether beliefs are rational or not.