Causal Reduction

May 15, 2010

An interesting essay:

But also an eminently frustrating one. Why? Because, while I agree with most of what the author says, I don’t buy most of her arguments. She seems to rely more on rhetoric – and she does write beautifully – than on logic. And she’s more interested in saying that we just can’t know most things than in saying what she thinks we can know.

Her basic point, though, I think is a good one; the mere fact that we can describe the mechanical functionings of our brains perfectly (and we can’t even do that) does not imply that there’s nothing more to them. She doesn’t use this language, but I think it mostly boils down to scientists thinking that because they’ve identified the material and efficient causes of things, they have proven that the formal and final do not exist. Which is kind of absurd.



March 6, 2008

I’ve mentioned before that I believe organized religion is superior to some kind of spiritual free-for-all, and promised to write a post on that subject. I’ve been planning the post for a while, and today, after listening to a lecture by Brother Guy Consolmagno (a Jesuit) about “how scientists and engineers view religion”, I finally have the inspiration to do it.First of all, I’ll say something about the bad reasons for organized religion. I was somewhat disturbed, actually, by some of what Br. Guy said about “techies” (as he called them) and religion, specifically why the ones that are religious are religious (note that Br. Guy didn’t endorse their reasons, just said that this was what they believed).

Many people (not just techies) are religious not so much because they think their religion is true as because they like the sense of community they get from it, or they want to instill virtues in their children, or some nonsense like that. Those are horrible reasons to belong to an organized religion. If you want a community, join a book club or something. If you want to instill virtues in your children, then first think about why you believe one ought to be virtuous, then instill virtues in your children using those reasons – and if you can’t, perhaps your reasons aren’t very good any you should rethink them. But don’t try to convince your children of something you yourself don’t believe is true just to make them good people.

And people who don’t believe in any organized religion often have decent reasons. Br. Guy gave several common (techie) responses to the question of, how do you decide between the myriad possible religions out there, many of which have compelling arguments for them? I think they boil down to essentially three different ways of looking at religion.

    1. Clearly, since they can’t all be right, they’re all wrong. This is not a logical argument, but it resonates emotionally, even with me, a committed Catholic. And unfortunately logic isn’t really applicable when trying to decide between axiom systems. This way lies atheism.
    2. Clearly, since they all seem to be right, or at least make sense, they are all in some sense right. So just pick one, it doesn’t really matter which one. If you disagree with some aspect of that religion, no big deal. You don’t actually have to agree with the beliefs of the religion you supposedly profess. This way lies what is often called cafeteria religion – just try to find a religion community you can fit in well with, that you mostly agree with, and don’t worry about what you disagree with them about.
    3. Clearly, there is one truth, and every religion is an attempt to approximate this truth. They may all seem equally true, but they cannot be – after all, they contradict. So one ought to find the religion that converges most closely with the truth. This leads to a more sophisticated form of cafeteria religion – you pick the religion you find most true, but if you think you know better than it in some way, you follow your variant rather than the standard.

      The first two I find it hard to argue with. To one who rejects religion out of hand, the only response, I think, is to point out the rather illogical nature of the claim that because it is impossible to determine which religion is actually true, no religion is true – but this really doesn’t get anywhere. I think with these people you have to abandon reasoned discourse – you cannot change someone’s axioms with logic unless you prove them inconsistent. The second I simply cannot respect. If you do not care about truth, what can I say to you to convince you to change your mind?

      But the third is actually interesting. Why shouldn’t one be allowed to be Catholic but disagree with the Church over contraception, or women priests, or papal infallibility, or whatever your particular complaint is?

      My answer: because organized religions are not simply collections of like-minded people. The Catholic Church sees itself as a Church. The organization itself exists, and you’re either in, or you’re out. You can’t disagree with the Church about something it has definitively settled (like any of the things I mentioned above) – if you do, you’re not actually in the Church. Perhaps you are in name, but I would say that you’re really already excommunicated – you excommunicated yourself, by deciding not to actually be in the community of Catholics by believing what the Catholic Church teaches. This applies to a lesser degree to other religions. It doesn’t make any sense to be Jewish and reject the Torah, or to be Muslim and disagree with parts of the Qur’an.

      So what do you do if you like many of the teachings of a religion, but disagree with others? This is where many people say that it’s OK to believe what you want to believe. Just don’t be a member of any church or synagogue or mosque.

      But I think doing so is hubris. You claim, essentially, that you yourself have found the truth while no one else ever has. You might say that you think religion X was close to the truth, and you’re just trying to get closer to the truth – religions evolve to converge closer and closer to the actual truth, which no religion has. But this strikes me an nonsense. Religions don’t just offer a set of unconnected beliefs, some one which you can take and some of which you can throw out as outdated – they offer comprehensive systems of belief. Systems like that don’t “evolve” or “converge”.

      That is my essential point. If you disagree with one part, you basically have to either be humble and say that perhaps the combined weight of hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of tradition just might have gotten this right and you wrong, or you have to throw out the entire system and build a new one with different premises – or prove conclusively that your religion’s original axioms do not lead to the conclusion you disagree with. Which is damn hard to do.

      [Note: As I was writing this post, I realized that “spiritual free-for-all” can really mean two things – cafeteria religion, on the one hand, and gnosticism, meaning here not the Manichean spirit-body dualism but the idea of hidden knowledge, on the other. These two are really different, and require radically different arguments against them. This is an argument against cafeteria religion. I’ll hopefully write something about gnosticism in the near future. But I think this is an adequate, if not extraordinary, response to the question of, why organized religion?]

      War of the Gods

      February 28, 2008

      In ancient times, or so I’ve read, when each different tribe had a different god, the conquest of one tribe by another was thought to prove that one god was somehow stronger than the other. This can be seen at times in the Old Testament; the Israelites conquering the Canaanite tribes was seen as proving that YHWH existed while Baal, et al, did not.

      A lot of people, I think, see examples like this as somewhat absurd. How does defeating the religious followers of another god prove that your god exists and theirs does not? The basic concept, however, seems to me to be more deeply rooted in our psyche than most people realize. The idea than an ideology is somehow proven false because it loses followers is commonplace.

      Take the Nazis. The idea that Jews were sub-human died, for the most part, with the fall of the 3rd Reich. I’m not saying that the destruction of the Jewish race was not an abominable evil, far from it – but I am saying that it is only considered evil now because the Nazis lost the war. In a sense, then, their military defeat proved they were wrong to commit genocide.

      That’s a somewhat weak example; here’s a better one. Take Zoroastrianism. That religion has a lot going for it. I’ve even seen several people argue that Zoroastrianism was more logical than Christianity. But today the religion has only a few hundred thousand adherents, it will be extinct in a few centuries, and no one takes it seriously any more. This seems for the most part to be just a consequence of having few followers. The fact that no one believes in Zoroastrianism is taken as evidence that it must be false.

      I’ve even seen atheists use the fact that religions come and go as evidence that no religion can be true. The problem with this, of course, is that it then means that if a religion stays around for a while (say, Catholicism), it must be true. I doubt they want to imply that. My question is – do Catholics want to imply that?

      Perhaps there is some value to discarding belief systems on that basis, perhaps not. I don’t know. But I do think it would be somewhat amusing – depressing and irrational, yes, but it would have a dark humor to it – if the one true faith, which everyone had to believe in order to be saved, was that of Baal.

      Lord, Liar, Lunatic

      January 7, 2008

      C. S. Lewis is known for his trilemma, an argument in favor of Jesus’ divinity. Lewis says that, since Jesus claimed to God, he must either have been telling the truth (Lord), been lying and known about it (liar), or been himself deluded (lunatic).

      This is often derided as a false trichotomy – there are, it is claimed, other possibilities. Jesus, it is said, did not actually claim to be God (“rabbi”). Or he claimed to be God but only in some sort of pantheistic sense – everything is God, so he’s God (“guru”). Or Jesus as we know him is essentially a mythological character anyway (“myth”).

      Now, I could take each of these objections separately, but I think they all reflect the same flawed mindset. New Testament scholars saying that Jesus didn’t actually claim to be God; people who favor the Gnostic gospels saying that the true Jesus is found in those, and in them, Jesus seems to be a pantheist; others claiming that Jesus didn’t actually exist; all of these result from rejecting the narrative the New Testament lays out and substituting another.

      The New Testament is pretty damn clear that Jesus is God – or, at least, that Jesus claimed to be God. So how can we arrive at the conclusion that he didn’t actually do so? Only by saying that the Jesus presented in the New Testament is not the historical Jesus – that they don’t give an accurate representation of him, and so we have to try to ignore them and discover through other means what Jesus was really like.

      The scriptural scholars do this by dissecting the Gospels and drawing conclusions from them that, well, make little to no sense. I’m no expert on their methods, but the ones who come to the conclusion that Jesus didn’t claim to be God seem to do so in spite of, not because of, the evidence in the Gospels.

      The gnostics do this by saying that the Gnostic gospels are more accurate than the New Testament gospels. The problem here is that, well, they’re not. The Gnostics are free to claim that the New Testament is unreliable – but it’s absurd to claim that the Gnostic gospels are more reliable.

      The atheists do this just by saying that the New Testament is historically unreliable and, even if we have nothing better to give us data on what Jesus did and taught, we can’t use the New Testament as a base.

      The problem with all of these, I think, is that the New Testament is the best source of information on Jesus that we have. It’s clearly more reliable that the Gnostic gospels. It’s certainly more reliable than the theories of scriptural scholars doing their work 2000 years after the events in question. So why not use it? Even if you reject that it is divinely inspired, it’s better than nothing. And it’s pretty clear on the fact that Jesus claims to be God. It leaves lord, liar, and lunatic as options, but it rejects rabbi and guru.

      What about myth, then? It is true that we can’t know for certain that these are the only three possibilities. But, it’s also true that, as far as we know, there might have been a man living in South Africa in 10000 BC who claimed to be God and then drowned himself, and that he was the “real historical Jesus”. Such speculation doesn’t accomplish anything. The historical Jesus is either what is presented in the Gospels, or there is no historical Jesus that is historically significant. This would make Jesus a myth – but that doesn’t mean what some claim it means. It means that Jesus didn’t exist. Either lord, liar, lunatic, or nothing. “Nothing” is a possibility – but nothing else is. And a “nothing” possibility seems rather redundant. I could claim right now that Caesar Augustus didn’t exist, and you couldn’t contradict me, but what would be the point?

      So, yes, I think the lord, liar, lunatic, trichotomy is valid. It isn’t the best piece of apologetics, but I think it is a valid argument for why those who claim to “respect Jesus as a teacher but not believe in him” are intellectually dishonest. And really, that’s all it’s intended to do.

      Golden Strawman

      December 4, 2007

      I’ll admit right now that I haven’t read The Golden Compass, nor seen the movie (which comes out tomorrow). So I’m not going to review the book or the movie. I’m just going to talk about in what sense the books are anti-Christian and whether they should be condemned because of it.

      Now, there have been great works of literature that were anti-Christian, and I don’t know if we can condemn the Golden Compass and its sequels solely on the basis of their philosophical claims. And I’m going to ignore, for now, that the books and movie are directed towards children and the significance of that fact. Even without using those to condemn the works, though, it seems to me that the books and movie are both extremely deceptive in their presentation of their anti-Christian claims, and thus they are little more than the worst kind of propaganda.

      To start – the author, Philip Pullman. has said that he is “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” That’s not an ambiguous statement – he’s attacking, or at least trying to attack, the Christian religion.

      But in a sense, the books don’t attack Christianity; they attack the general idea of tyranny. (Incidentally, I suspect I wouldn’t like The Golden Compass if I read it because I don’t like works that preach about evils that don’t exist…) Essentially, Pullman claims that “every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”

      I’m not going to bother going into why – if someone finds this an interesting topic, I’ll make another post on it later – but this doesn’t really make any sense if you know anything about Christianity. Christians would agree with the idea that it’s evil to “control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling”. In fact, some Christian groups (the USCCB among them) have come out and said that the movie and book aren’t anti-Christian, they’re just anti-tyrannical and pro-freedom, both things that Christians are also in favor of.

      The problem is that, even though the books don’t actually argue against Christianity, they claim to do so. They explicitly state that the bad guys are Christians, the evil organization is the Church, etc. (In the movie the evil organization is the Magisterium, which supposedly makes it less anti-religious, but it doesn’t actually do so if you know what Magisterium means.) Even though it’s just attacking a straw-man and actually promoting some Christian values, by presenting its attack as one on Christianity it makes itself anti-Christian – indeed, it becomes the worst kind of anti-Christian propaganda.

      Essentially, anyone who reads the books or watches the movie without knowing what Christianity actually teaches will be convinced that Christianity is a great evil in the world – because who wouldn’t be convinced that an organization whose goal is to “control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling” is evil?

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