Saturday, May 21, 2016

Just read

I just read a great short story that some of you might like. It's a combination detective story, hard science fiction, and the history of science called "The Weighing of Ayre" by Gregory Feeley. The link gives the various books it's appeared in; I have it in The Year's Best Science Fiction, vol. 14. It's about 20 years old, but it's new to me.

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Some comments on the flood, part 1

The account of Noah and the flood is one of those Bible passages held up as being inconsistent with contemporary science -- probably only the creation account receives more fire. In fact young-earth creationists use the flood accounts to justify their positions. According to them, all the geological strata, along with the fossils embedded in them, were laid down by the flood. Some even suggest that the earth was much smoother at the time of the flood and that the mountain ranges formed during it. This is why young-earth creationism is often called "flood geology". The anti-science impression is compounded by how the young-earth folk tie the flood account to the creation account: on the second day of creation, God separated the waters above from the waters below. The waters above, they contend, refers to a primeval water canopy that surrounded the earth which created a sort of tropical paradise where it never rained (as claimed in Genesis 2:5). The flood took place when this canopy collapsed and fell to the earth.

Now, as far as I can tell, the only part of this scenario that was widely accepted prior to the mid-19th century is the claim that the flood was global. I'll deal with that issue in part 2. For now I'll focus on the other issues.

The concept of a primeval water canopy comes from the visions of Ellen White which started in the 1840s and which formed the basis for Seventh-Day Adventism. Seventh-Day Adventism was originally a cult as they considered White's visions to be as authoritative as the Bible. They have since backed away from that stance and are generally considered to be an authentic Christian denomination today -- although I note that Walter Martin, in his magisterial The Kingdom of the Cults, had a 100-page appendix entitled "The Puzzle of Seventh-Day Adventism". Contemporary young-earth creationism is virtually identical to -- and historically derived from -- White's visions.

However, I'm going to ignore the dubious provenance of young-earth creationism in order to focus on some of the problems with how it uses the flood to create an alternative view of earth's history. With regards to the water canopy theory, they point out that the Bible states that the waters were separated to be above and below an expanse, which the text specifically defines as the sky or heavens (שָׁמָ֑יִם). This term had numerous meanings in ancient Hebrew: the Bible uses it to refer to the air or space around us (I owe this point to Dallas Willard's comments in The Divine Conspiracy, chapter 3), the air or space above us, the earth’s atmosphere, outer space, or the spiritual realm where God dwells. Thus one could correctly say that birds fly in the heavens, clouds float in the heavens, stars shine in the heavens, and angels dwell in the heavens. The spiritual heavens are themselves divided further into the seven heavens, not just in Jewish tradition, but in many ancient cosmologies.

In order to defend the canopy theory, one would have to say that the expanse (that is, the heavens) refers specifically to the earth's atmosphere. But I think it is more plausible that it refers to the air or space that is around and above us, and that the waters above them simply refers to clouds and precipitation. My reasoning for this is that, first, if the phrase "the waters above" does not refer to something common in our experience (like precipitation, water that falls from above), then it is completely obscure. Genesis 1 does not define what "the waters above" is, so if it is not meant to refer to an aspect of our common experience (just as "the waters below" refers to rivers, lakes, oceans, and their underground sources), it could be forced to mean nearly anything.

Second, there is biblical evidence against the canopy theory. The text says that when the flood abated, the waters returned (וַיָּשֻׁ֧בוּ) to where they had been prior to the flood (Genesis 8:3). Therefore, if the water had originated in a canopy, it would have returned to form another canopy after the flood. Since the water did not reform into a water canopy that surrounded the earth, the floodwaters did not originate in such a canopy.

In fact there are other Bible passages which show that the waters above refers to clouds and precipitation. Proverbs 3:19-20 states that "By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew." Referring to God's laying of the earth's foundations and setting the heavens in place clearly hearkens back to the creation account in Genesis 1. "The deeps were divided" sounds exactly like the separation of the waters below from the waters above ("the deeps" and "the deep" are common references to oceans and water in the Bible, even in Genesis 1 -- "darkness was over the surface of the deep"), and "the clouds let drop the dew" obviously refers to precipitation. Similarly, Proverbs 8:27-29 states "I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep." Again, "when he set the heavens in place" clearly refers back to the creation account in Genesis 1, and "clouds above" and "fountains of the deep" immediately brings to mind the concept of the waters above and the waters below, which would entail that the waters above refer to clouds.

The claim that it didn't rain on the early earth (and therefore that "the waters above" couldn't have referred to clouds and precipitation) is based on two passages: the first is Genesis 2:5, which states that "the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth [בָאָ֔רֶץ] and there was no one to work the ground." However, this verse is a part of the story of God's creation of Adam and Eve; it does not refer to the entire planet and all of earth history, but to the garden of Eden on the sixth day of creation. The term אָ֔רֶץ means "land", and often refers to local areas like this. So on the sixth day of creation, after God had set aside Eden but before he had placed the first people there, it had not yet rained in Eden. (This is assuming the Genesis 2 account should be taken fairly literally which may not be necessary.)

The other passage offered is Genesis 9:13-17 which states that God set the rainbow in the sky to represent his promise to never destroy the earth's population by flood again. This supposedly implies that there had been no rainbows prior to this, and hence, it had never rained. However, whenever God makes a covenant with people in the Bible, he takes something they're already familiar with and says, in effect, "From now on this represents my covenant with you" (other examples being baptism, circumcision, animal blood, and bread and wine). So Genesis 9:13-17 shouldn't be understood as saying that there had never been any rainbows, but that they were to represent God's covenant from that point on. Therefore, I conclude there is no biblical reason to suggest that the flood was the first time it rained on the earth, and that the passages from Proverbs mentioned above show that there are biblical reasons to think it had rained before.

The claim that the earth's landmass was smoother before the flood is not based on the flood narrative itself, but on some translations of Psalm 104:6-8 (I'll discuss this psalm in more detail in part 2) which, in describing a separation of land from water, refer to the upheaval of the mountains rather than the recession of the waters. For example, the NASB translates vs. 8 as "The mountains rose; the valleys sank down To the place which You established for them"; and the ESV as "The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them." In contrast, the KJV translates this verse as "They [the waters] go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them"; and the NIV as "they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them." It is not clear whether the verbs refer to the waters or to the mountains and valleys.

There are several responses to this:

1) Psalm 104 is a poetic reiteration of Genesis 1. Thus, verses 6-8 are not describing the events of the flood, but the events of creation week when God first formed dry land. So even if we should take these verses as referring to the mountains rising and valleys sinking, it's doing so in the context of creation week, not the flood.

2) Genesis 8:1-3 specifically states that during the flood it was the waters that receded, not the land that was raised.

3) To claim that over eleven miles of tectonic uplift (the difference between the deepest ocean chasm and the tallest mountain) could have taken place in a year's time (the duration of the flood) poses insurmountable problems. A magnitude six earthquake only creates two inches of uplift. Multiply this by 180 million. In such a situation, the passengers on board the ark could not have survived. Moreover, there would have been aftershocks which would have been powerful enough to completely wipe out the survivors.

At this point, some will no doubt object that to say these things couldn't happen is simply to disbelieve in a God who performs miracles. Surely God could have uplifted the mountains supernaturally rather than through tectonic uplift so that the lives of those on board the ark were not threatened. Or surely he could have supernaturally preserved their lives, and supernaturally prevented the aftershocks from destroying the postdiluvian population.

But the problem with these suggestions is not that they are miraculous; the problem with them is that they are ad hoc. That is, they are made in the absence of any biblical evidence in their favor, in order to retain the young-earth creationist / flood geology model. The more a theory goes beyond the given facts, the more ad hoc, or contrived, it is.

In fact, Henry Morris , the founder of young-earth creationism, makes this point fairly well. In The Genesis Record he writes:

It would be helpful to keep in mind Occam's Razor (the simplest hypothesis which explains all the data is the most likely to be correct), the Principle of Least Action (nature normally operates in such a way as to expend the minimum effort to accomplish a given result), and the theological principle of the Economy of Miracles (God has, in His omnipotence and omniscience, created a universe of high efficiency of operation and will not interfere in this operation supernaturally unless the natural principles are incapable of accomplishing His purpose in a specific situation), in attempting to explain the cause and results of the great Flood.

Unfortunately, Morris violates these principles themselves, not least in The Genesis Flood, the book that launched the young-earth creationist movement in 1960 by introducing the Seventh-Day Adventist interpretation of Genesis (based on Ellen White's visions) to a broader Protestant audience. In it, Morris and his co-author John Whitcomb attempt to respond to the argument that the eight people on board the ark could not have fed, cared for, and cleaned up after more than a few thousand animals at most, by suggesting that many of the animals may have gone into hibernation. However, most of the animals taken on board wouldn’t normally hibernate, those that do would only do so for a season and not for the year that they were on the ark, and hibernating for such a significantly longer time would create severe health problems for the animals. Morris and Whitcomb then state that God could certainly have performed such an act, and that anyone who questions this doesn’t really have faith in a God of miracles. But of course, the objection to this is not that it is miraculous but that there is no biblical evidence that any of it happened. That is what makes it so implausible, that is what makes us groan and put our heads in our hands when we hear such contrived attempts to salvage a bad explanation, not the fact that it espouses a miraculous explanation.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Oy

OK, I can finally exhale. I was going to start blogging more, then I had to review the proofs and compile the index for a book that's coming out in a couple months, and the stress was ... considerable. Actually, I still have a couple weeks before the end of the term, then I correct final exams, and then I can exhale. In the meantime, for your reading pleasure, I present you with "Pray the Lord My Mind to Keep" by Cornelius Plantinga.

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter

I've written some posts on the historical Jesus, although not recently. You can peruse them here (the link goes to my other blog, but many of them were cross-posted here) or you could look at my posts of interest and scroll down to "Historical Jesus" for the highlights reel. Enjoy.

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Friday, March 04, 2016

Ethics and its importance to ancient Greek science


I noted in my previous blog post thatancient Greek science consisted of many different natural philosophies. In fact, it’s wrong to speak of Greek science in the singular. I’ve also noted in the past that if we judge Greek sciences by the standards of today (which, despite the anachronism, many people do), it was not very effective at generating true theories about the natural world. Finally, with few exceptions, science in the ancient world had no technological or practical applications.

So, what was it for? That’s what I want to explain in this post. 

Each school of Greek philosophy, whether Aristotelian, Platonic, Stoic or Epicurean, had a particular ethical system. Philosophers of each school believed that their moral values were objectively true: that’s to say they could use them to tell the difference between right and wrong. For these Greeks, morality was not just a matter of opinion: it was a rational issue with correct answers. Of course, the schools disagreed on what the truth was, a point gleefully pointed out by the sceptics.

Consider for a moment what it means for there to be objective moral values. It means that there is something about reality, outside human minds, that makes those values true. J.D. Mackie used the analogy of a game of chess. The rules of chess determine what is right and wrong in the universe of a chessboard. Whatever happens in a chess match as pieces are moved around, attack and defend, win or lose, ought to be consistent with the external rules the game. For any move, you can analyse whether this is true – you can get to ‘is’ from ‘ought’. Almost all philosophies of the past have treated moral values in the same way. For any given action or thought, they said, it is possible to determine through rational analysis whether it is consistent with objective moral values.      

So, like the rules of chess are for a chessboard, objective moral values must be part of the rules that govern the universe. In the owrds of Peter Harrison, ancient philosophers assumed that “a moral order is built into the structure of the cosmos.”

For Platonists and Christians, the source of these values is external to nature, that is the ideal Form of the good or the nature of God respectively. Nonetheless, both Platonists and Christians both assume that this external factor, be it the Form or God, is reflected in physical reality. Their natural philosophies are intended to validate the existence of the source of external moral values. That’s why Christian natural philosophy is based on the universe as God’s creation, while Platonists emphasized how the perfect Forms could be discerned in nature by philosophical reflection.

Aristotelians held that the function of humans was to live in line with virtue and that was the way to good living. This functionalist approach is reflected in Aristotle’s natural philosophy as well. He interpreted his famous observations of animals using this framework. His theory of natural motion states that even matter strives to reach its proper place and naturally moves towards it. To be happy, human beings must also adhere to the path that nature has laid out for them.

The Stoics defined right living as being in harmony with nature, which they deified through a form of pantheism. Because they believed moral laws were built into the very structure of the universe, Stoics had no trouble treating them as part of objective reality. The essential point, though, is that the ethics of Stoicism informed their natural philosophy, even though they might argue that it was nature that gave rise to their ethics.

Epicureans emphasised human freedom and so their natural philosophy demystified nature so that it provided a safe space for human choice. In his On the Nature of Things, Lucretius systematically runs through various phenomena to show how the free man has nothing to fear from them. Indeed, Epicurus himself said that once you understand a phenomenon sufficiently well to stop fearing it, you don’t need to delve any further. In a way, this is the opposite approach to the Stoics because the intention of Lucretius and Epicurus is to show that humans are objectively free. Nonetheless, this is still an ethical maxim and one that the Epicureans used to determine their natural philosophy. Once again, the ethical maxims were prior to the natural philosophy which served them.

The primacy of ethics and the belief in objective moral values explains both the multiplicity of Greek natural philosophies and the differences between them. It also shows us how utterly unlike modern science Greek natural philosophy was. Finally, it illustrates that the Greek attitude towards science was identical to that of early and medieval Christians. David Lindberg was fond of a metaphor he found in the work of Roger Bacon – that natural philosophy was the handmaiden of Christian theology. For the pagan Greek philosophers, whether they were theists or not, science was the servant of ethics.

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

New York Values

Here in the States there was a political dust-up recently when one candidate accused another of advocating New York values instead of more broadly American values or rural values or Midwest values or whatever. I make no comment. But if you want to see a real send-up of New York values, read Michael Flynn's short story "Grave Reservations" from his collection The Forest of Time and Other Stories. It's absolutely brutal. In fact, one of the candidates in question receives a brief mention.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Dennett on Christianity

I recently made a point in the comments over at Victor Reppert's blog that I think warrants fuller promotion. There is much to remark on regarding the debate between Daniel Dennett and Alvin Plantinga that took place several years ago and was then published as Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Right now I just want to focus on the fact that Dennett does not understand the most basic elements of the view he is criticizing.

The  example of this that stood out for me is when he writes, "Plantinga didn't hypothesize that Jesus guided and orchestrated the course of evolution; he hypothesized that God did. God is not Jesus, and maybe God can do things that Jesus can't do" (p. 47). The obvious problem is that this flies in the face of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. The Trinity states that God is three persons, one of whom is Jesus, and who share one essence. Jesus is not God the Father, nor is he God the Holy Spirit; he is God the Son, one of the three members of the Godhead. Certainly, this is an unusual doctrine and it's difficult to wrap one's head around it (if you doubt this, try explaining it to your kids), but it's not like it's unknown. Regarding the Incarnation, the whole idea there is that "God became man"; God (the Son) chose to be incarnated as a human being. Certainly there are religious groups who deny this for various reasons: ancient Arians denied it, contemporary Arians (Jehovah's Witnesses) deny it, Jews and Muslims deny it, etc. But orthodox Christians accept it, and again, it's a pretty well-known claim. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God."

So the Trinity and the Incarnation are absolutely central to Christianity, yet Dennett writes that, according to Plantinga, "God is not Jesus, and maybe God can do things that Jesus can't do". I guess it's possible that Dennett is accusing Plantinga of denying these doctrines, but this would be the most subtly-phrased accusation of heresy I've ever heard, and Dennett is not known for subtlety. I guess it's also possible that Dennett could simply be speaking of himself: that he rejects the Christian claims of who Jesus is, but accepts the existence of God while denying God had anything to do with evolution. Except I read somewhere that Dennett doesn't believe in God, so I don't think that's the right answer either.

Obviously Dennett is ascribing the claim "God is not Jesus, and maybe God can do things that Jesus can't do" to Christianity. And this is just to announce that he is unaware of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Yet Dennett feels himself fully capable of addressing the claims of Christianity regardless. Note that this wasn't part of his original response to Plantinga, which may have had some off-the-cuff elements to it (although he obviously prepared his response beforehand, since he didn't really address many of the specifics that Plantinga gives in his first speech). This was one of his prepared essays for the book that responded to the original debate. The point is that Dennett is not justified in even having an opinion here, much less expressing it, much less debating the subject. He simply doesn't know the first thing about it, his proud proclamations notwithstanding.

This is not an accident by the way. A page later he writes, "the fact that it [Christianity] is an ancient tradition with many eminent contributors does not make it more deserving of attention than any other mythology" (p. 48). He doesn't have to pay any attention to it, nor should anyone else. Well, that's true, you don't have to pay attention to anything you don't want to. But when you don't pay any attention to something, you give up the right (the epistemic right, that is) to have an opinion about it and to make pronouncements about it. Since you haven't paid attention to it, you don't know anything about it, and if you don't know anything about it, you are not in a position to form a responsible opinion about it. I also have to point out that if there were "an ancient tradition with many eminent contributors" that struck me as so absurd as to be undeserving of attention, then I would assume that I was missing something and that it was in fact deserving of attention.

Now I actually like Dennett. Not because I agree with his conclusions but because I see the issues in much the same way as he does. He argues that if God does not exist, then many of the most elementary properties we ascribe to the mind (like intentionality and qualia) can't be veridical. I agree with this. The difference is that, I argue the modus tollens to Dennett's modus ponens. So whereas he contends

If God does not exist, then certain elementary properties we ascribe to the mind can't be veridical.
God does not exist.
Therefore certain elementary properties we ascribe to the mind can't be veridical.

I argue

If God does not exist, then certain elementary properties we ascribe to the mind can't be veridical.
Certain elementary properties we ascribe to the mind are veridical.
Therefore God exists (he does not not exist)

Nevertheless, my affinity for him with regards to the first premise has nothing to do with his debate with Plantinga, and of course it in no way excuses him from his responsibilities to actually know the topics on which he pontificates. Not to mention that Plantinga, whether you agree with him or not, is kind of a powerhouse on this subject. To participate in a debate with someone like this without being willing to prepare for it in the most rudimentary way (by knowing the basic elements about the subject on which you're debating) should be more than a little embarrassing. It's tempting to say that Dennett brought a knife to a gunfight, but that gives him too much credit. Dennett brought a rubber chicken.


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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How to get ancient Greek Science almost completely wrong

When we think of ancient Greek science, we tend to imagine Raphael’s great fresco “The School of Athens” featuring philosophers in togas lost in thought. The picture suggests that science in the ancient world was a single school of thought, much like modern science purports to be. But as the great Thony Christie pointed out on his blog a few months ago, there was no such monolithic science in the ancient world. Instead, there were all sorts of different sciences spread across the Mediterranean during the thousand odd years that separate the pre-Socratics from John Philoponus.


We also tend to think of the story of science being a single thread that begins with the pre-Socratics and wends its way down through time via Athens, Alexandria, Baghdad, Florence, Oxford and Harvard. I’ve just finished The Forgotten Revolution: HowScience Was Born in 300 BC and Why it Had to Be Reborn by Lucio Russo and translated into English by Silvio Levy (Springer, 2004) which takes this trope a great deal further than it can realistically go. Russo imagines something very like modern science arose in the Hellenistic era around 250BC. Rather stupidly, the Romans forgot all about it. For Russo, the scientific revolution was simply the rediscovery of the Greek science that had been lost. Unfortunately, although there were lots of different Greek sciences, none of them looked much like modern science. In fact, judged by the standards of modern science (which is, of course, a completely anachronistic thing to do), most Greek natural philosophy is wrong, as is Greek medicine. It is only in mathematics that many achievements of the Greeks are still part of the body of knowledge.
Finally, we imagine the Greeks, as a people, being particularly interested in science. However, science was the preoccupation of a small number of thinkers at the highest echelons of society in a few of the largest cities. It was practiced by a minority of a minority of a minority of the population. Papyri unearthed in Egypt show us just what an unusual pursuit it was. You can play around with the Mertens Pack papyrus database online to see this first hand. Homer features in 1,708 papyri on the database, Menander in 121, and Thucydides in 101. By contrast, Euclid and Ptolemy appear six times each (but only really in schoolbook editions of their ideas), while of Aristotle’s 15 appearances, only two are from his works of natural philosophy. Our impression that science and mathematics were subjects of widespread interest among the Greeks is caused by the bias of later Christian and Muslim copyists in preserving scientific texts, rather than the proclivities of the pagan Greeks themselves. 
In summary, the popular picture of Greek science is wrong in almost all respects.
And there’s one final point about which many people are mistaken. It’s widely assumed that the rise of Christianity put a stop to Greek science. This is surprising, because the vast majority of surviving ancient Greek science and medicine dates from the second century AD onwards. While it was once common to declare late Greek science as derivative and (frankly) boring, more recent studies of the work of John Philoponus mean that view can no longer be maintained. It is also being realised that the versions of Euclid and Ptolemy that we possess today are the product of careful philological and editorial work in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. In other words, Greeks of the Christian era were not just handing down the masterworks of previous eras, they were amending and improving them. That said, Christians did have a different set of interests to pagans so they used Greek philosophy for their own purposes rather than simply carrying forward a pagan agenda.
In The Forgotten Revolution, Russo blames the Roman annexation of Greece and Egypt for a decline in scientific knowledge. For the Romans, science was of little interest. They enjoyed Greek literature and art, but scientific works were not something any upwardly mobile Roman would be interested in patronising. Russo may have a point here. Nonetheless, his central contention that the work of Copernicus and Galileo was anticipated in the Hellenistic era is a great deal more dubious. As far as he is concerned, all the good bits in late Greek natural philosophy come from lost Hellenistic sources.

All this means I can't really recommend his book. It's a case of "I've read it so you don't have to".


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Friday, January 22, 2016

Violence in the name of God

Some nonreligious friends of mine were recently texting me and each other about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and how the specific religion of the terrorists was irrelevant. I loathe texting because my responses are always too long for that format; by the time I type something in, the conversation has shifted, so it is no longer clear what I am responding to. Regardless, my friends brought up alleged terrorist attacks by Christians to suggest that all groups, or at least all religious groups, are equally prone to terrorism, none more so than any other. They suggested several unconvincing cases, but I think the best recent example of this would be Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed 70 teenagers at a summer camp, and who described himself as Christian. However, he also stated explicitly that he was not a religious person, had only tried praying once in his life, and wanted to establish a secular society, not a theological one. "Christian" for him meant "traditional": he wanted to fight multiculturalism and re-embrace the traditional cultures of Norway and Europe in general, and historically Christianity was a strong presence in those cultures (the fact that these cultures shunned murder and terrorism seems to have escaped him). He stated that it was possible to be a "Christian-atheist", that is, an atheist who wants to preserve the traditional European culture and legacy but who does not believe in God or Jesus and does not accept what we usually think of as Christianity.

Of course you could find horrific acts done in the name of Christianity throughout history; for that matter, you could find horrific acts done in the name of any ideology -- religious, atheistic, political -- as long as it has a sufficient number of members. This, I assume, is what my friends were referring to when they said (texted) that people use ideology for an excuse to commit evil acts, and we shouldn't blame the ideology in question. They were really only saying that we shouldn't blame Islam for Islamic terrorism and seemed to be suggesting that we could blame Christianity for the alleged examples of Christian terrorism, but really they were just illustrating how people were employing a double-standard in blaming Islam for the evil committed in its name but excusing Christianity for the evil committed in its name.

I'm afraid I don't think it's that simple. As I've written before, ideas have consequences and different ideas have different consequences. There will always be people who will  find some excuse to commit evil regardless of their ideology, but to suggest that therefore no ideology is more prone to violence than any other is absurd. A pacifistic ideology is less likely to lead to violence than an ideology that advocates war and human sacrifice. Moreover, the idea that religious ideologies are uniquely prone to violence (and all equally so) is simply indefensible. You can use the same categories we just used: a pacifistic religion is less likely to lead to violence than a religion that advocates war and human sacrifice. This seems painfully obvious to me, yet much of discussion on this subject only makes sense if we presuppose the absurdity that all religions, by their very nature, are inherently, and equally, violent.

My friends pointed to the recent case of a guy who shot up an abortion clinic. His family said he was Christian but also that he was mentally ill. To blame his acts on Christianity instead of his mental illness seems needlessly inimical. Nevertheless, my friends' point was that he opposed abortion because of his Christian beliefs, and this is what motivated him to commit his evil act. So there's a simple move from his Christian belief to his act of murder.

The problem with this is that you could blame virtually any disagreement for violence this way. If a person thinks that his belief B is true and important and kills another person for disagreeing with him, it was belief in B that led the first person to the violence. Except it wasn't: you have to add another belief to the mix -- namely that it is acceptable and perhaps laudatory to defend or enforce true important beliefs, or at least some of them, by committing violence against those who don't hold them -- and it is this other belief, call it O, that provides the motive for the violence. We can make it more subtle by asking whether a person has a belief that entails O, implies O, or perhaps is just compatible with O.

Now here's the point: some ideologies have these "other" beliefs, beliefs like O or those that lead to them, and some don't. It is perfectly reasonable to ask of a particular ideology whether it contains beliefs like this or whether it doesn't. And you're going to get different answers from different ideologies and in particular from different religious ideologies. You just have to take it on a case-by-case basis. It is not hatred, it is not phobic, to ask this. You can ask this of Christianity, you can ask this of Islam, you can ask this of atheism, of democracy, of Marxism, etc. To suggest that no ideologies contain beliefs like O or beliefs that lead to O is silly and false: of course some do. To suggest that all ideologies contain beliefs like O is also silly and false. To suggest that all ideologies of a particular type (religious or political ideologies, say) contain beliefs like O would require one to demonstrate the connection between this particular type and O -- and in the case of religious and political ideologies, such a demonstration is not forthcoming: some do, some don't. Just because some religious ideologies contain beliefs like O. It doesn't follow from this they all do. This is just sloppy thinking.

The two ideologies we're really dealing with here are Christianity and Islam. So does Christianity contain a belief or doctrine like O or that can be reasonably interpreted as leading to or implying O? I'm sure I'm biased here, but I don't think it does, and in fact I think Christianity contains beliefs and doctrines that preclude O. I'm thinking here of claims such as that all human beings are created in God's image, and so all are of infinite and equal value. That the law can be summed up by two commandments: love God and love other people. That it is impossible to love God while hating someone, since the hated person is created in God's image. That God is love itself, and that he loves each individual so much that he became a human being and willingly experienced the very worst humanity had to offer -- and in so doing reconciled us to him. That all people, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, or social standing are of equal value to God because God loves them equally, including those who hate him. So human value is determined by the fact that we are created in God's image and that God loves us. These are not arbitrary passages, they are central doctrines, universally accepted throughout Christian history. To reject them is to reject Christianity. Of course there will be some people who do reject them while insisting nevertheless that they are Christians (think of the Westboro Baptist church). But any large ideology will have people who are only in it nominally, using it somehow as a mask to cover whatever terrible things they want to say and do. Having said that, it's not my place to say whether someone has truly accepted Christ in their hearts: human beings are very complex, and we have an incredible and disturbing ability to deceive ourselves. My point is rather that Christianity does not contain any beliefs like O or that imply or entail O, and in fact it contains beliefs -- central doctrines even -- that are incompatible with beliefs like O.

By saying this I don't mean to imply that the only valid form of Christianity is pacifistic. Certainly some do interpret it that way, but it has usually been understood to leave room for self-defense, warfare, and often capital punishment. Whether the claim that all human beings are created in God's image and that God loves everyone, thus imbuing every person with infinite and equal value is incompatible with warfare and capital punishment is certainly debatable -- I even know Christians who think it is incompatible with self-defense, and that they are morally obligated to not defend themselves or their loved ones if they are attacked, which I think is insane and morally reprehensible. But that's not the question: the question is whether warfare and capital punishment are equivalent to O, the belief that it is acceptable and perhaps laudatory to defend or enforce true important beliefs by committing violence against those who don't hold them. But neither warfare nor capital punishment -- assuming the debatable point that they are compatible with the central Christian doctrines above -- meet this definition (and obviously neither does self-defense). Regardless of whether one agrees with the proffered rationales behind war and capital punishment, they are not the same as O. You can be opposed to warfare in all cases without thinking it's always undertaken in order to visit violence on those with whom you disagree -- another Christian doctrine is just war theory, according to which war has to meet certain moral conditions in order for it to be appropriate. You can be opposed to capital punishment without thinking that the only reason for it is to visit violence on those with whom you disagree. This is sufficient to demonstrate that warfare and capital punishment are not equivalent to O, regardless of whatever else we think of them.

A critic might make the counterargument that the central doctrines I've mentioned are contradicted by some Bible passages. God loves all people equally? But he says he hated Esau. God commands us to love others? But Jesus says we have to hate our own families in order to be his disciple. The problem with this is that the central doctrines have always been understand as the definitive claims, so that these "problem passages" have to be explained in light of the much more prevalent passages that support the doctrines. Whether or not the explanations work is not my point; I'm just saying that these passages were not seen historically as contradicting the central doctrines, and it is the central doctrines that are relevant as to whether Christianity is compatible with O. Certainly, some people have taken these problem passages individually and superficially, using them as a justification for evil. But this can only be done by ignoring the larger context of the Bible as a whole, since this larger context includes the central doctrines which are incompatible with interpreting these passages as equivalent to O. Again, this is not just my interpretation: these central doctrines are universally accepted throughout Christian history. It's not just my reading, my understanding of what the Bible says, it's what Christianity teaches and has always taught.

The critic might press the point by pointing to events described in the Bible where God seems to sanction violence, and excessive violence at that. The usual suspect here is the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua, when God told the Israelites to conquer a land militarily, often with the addition of leaving no one alive, including children. This has been a huge source of discussion throughout Christian history precisely because it is enormously difficult to reconcile with the doctrines mentioned above, and others. However, regardless of how we reconcile it (assuming it can be), the history of Christian and Jewish thought testifies that the rationale behind this series of events was believed to be unique to that particular time and place, applying only to those specific circumstances, and was not a model for future acts. It was not understood as a paradigm for the Jew or Christian, or the Jewish or Christian nation, to follow. Again, my goal here is not to provide some explanation for whether the conquest of Canaan can be made consistent with the doctrines that God is love, loves everyone equally, etc. My point is just that the violence involved in the conquest of Canaan does not, and has never been understood to, illustrate central doctrines. The central doctrines are those mentioned above and which preclude beliefs like O.

What about Islam? The Hadith say that God created Adam in his image, and some Islamic thinkers and mystics have repeated this point. However, they don't seem to understand it the same way that Jews and Christians do: a primary claim of Islam, a "central doctrine", is that there can be no representation of God, no "image" of him. Any attempted portrayal of God would inevitably distort him and so be blasphemous. Some Muslims (not all, despite belief to the contrary) extend this act of reverence to depictions of Muhammad and other prophets by not drawing or painting their faces, or by scratching out the faces painted by other Muslims. But if there can be no representation of God, then human beings cannot really be representations of him by being created in his image. To think they are is heretical.

Moreover, the Judeo-Christian doctrine of imago Dei involves the claim that God creates human beings so that they have certain properties that God has in a higher or purer fashion. We have a sense of rationality, a sense of morality, and a sense of beauty because God is the ground of rationality, morality, and beauty. They are rooted in his very nature. These are points of contact between God and humanity. But another central doctrine of Islam is that God is completely transcendent, and that therefore there can be no point of contact between God and humanity. Even Muhammad didn't receive the Qur'an from God, he received it from the archangel Gabriel who had received it from God. There are important qualifications to this: for example, the Qur'an states that God is closer to us than we are to our own jugular veins. But I don't think this negates the point that there is no direct connection between God and humanity in Islam.

Another point: the Judeo-Christian points of contact between God and humanity are traits we have that are aspects of God's nature (rationality, morality). But in Islam God has no nature: if he had a nature then he couldn't do something contrary to it (otherwise it wouldn't be his nature), and this is to limit God's omnipotence. Some Christians think this too, and in fact some Muslims deny it and affirm that God does have a nature: I think the Mu'tazilite school did so. But denying that God has a nature is a minority view in Christianity, and the almost universal view in Islam.

OK, so Islam denies that human beings are created in God's image in the Judeo-Christian sense, which is what forms the basis of affirming that all human beings are of infinite and equal value. God has ultimate value, he is the source of all value, so being created in his image we have derivative value. But this doesn't mean that Islam denies that all human beings have value: maybe they have a different basis for affirming it. In fact, above, I gave a second reason Christianity affirms it: God loves us all equally, including those who hate him and are in a state of rebellion against him. Perhaps Islam states something like this, thus providing them a basis for affirming that human beings are of equal value, which would therefore seem to be incompatible with beliefs like O.

Unfortunately, this turns out to not be the case. Throughout the Qur'an, God is quoted as saying that he does not love an awful lot of people -- specifically non-Muslims. The only people he loves are Muslims. And this forms the basis for human value in Islam. The better a Muslim you are, the more human you are. If you're not a Muslim at all, you're screwed.

Now does this entail or imply O, that one is justified in committing violence against those who do not agree with you? Actually, I don't think it does: just thinking other people aren't as fully human as you are does not say anything about violence. Once again, you'd have to import O into the system, a belief that does entail violence. However, I do think that this view of human value is compatible with O. This view of human value does not, in itself, give one a reason to commit violence. But it doesn't give one a reason to not commit violence either. It may not push one towards O, but there is nothing in it to ward it off if one has some other motive to accept O.

So the next question is whether Islam provides another motive. We saw above that there are some Bible passages which could be interpreted as advocating violence if taken superficially and out of their larger context where they are outnumbered by passages stating the opposite. The Qur'an seems to be differently proportioned along these lines: passages which advocate violence heavily outnumber those which advocate peace. Of course, on the one hand, it's not just a matter of counting passages, but of central doctrines. On the other hand, central doctrines are usually central because of the scriptural evidence behind them. Perhaps Islam only allows violence in the case of warfare or capital punishment -- although I note that Islam has no just war doctrine, so the criteria that prevent warfare from being equivalent to O in Christianity are not evident in Islam. Perhaps, again, they have other criteria to avoid this equivalence. However, at this point, I'm going to pass the buck to the Muslim world to tell us, both historically and contemporarily, how they have understood these passages, and what Islam's central doctrines are. I'm not asking for minority views but for the majority view, at least among Muslim theologians and philosophers.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Hey there

Jim S here. Sorry for being out of the blogging business for so long, I got kind of burned out by the comments in this post, although it was probably just the straw that broke the camel's back. I haven't been putting much up on Agent Intellect either. It's not like I'm not writing, I have a book and an article coming out, I just haven't been blogging. Anyway, I'm writing a post that I'll put up in a couple days or so in order to see if I can force myself out of this slump and back into the thick of things. I'm not sure if the post will be any good, I'm just trying to kickstart something.

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