Monthly Archives: July 2014

The basic error of Aquinas and Aristotle

Aquinas and Aristotle were some of the premiere thinkers of their respective times, and both thought that human reason was an important potential path to knowledge. This is shared with the contemporary sensibility – we tend to think that reason can help us to create a better picture of the world.

What was the big mistake of Aquinas and Aristotle? Not realizing the frailty of human reason. To work, it helps that human reason be tested, and tested, and tested again. Something might seem correct and clearly so to our faculty of reasoning. We might look at every step in the chain of reasoning and it might seem obviously correct. We might be some of the best human reasoners in the history of the world, such as Aquinas or Aristotle. Yet, we still might end up with an incorrect conclusion.

So, three ways to buttress human reasoning are first, as mentioned, to figure out how to test it. I.e., ‘how can I test this to see if it’s right, beyond just looking at the theory?’ One simple way to do this that is often overlooked is to just check in the world. For example, you can reason about what is or is not in the fridge, but the best way to check a theory so derived is to open up the fridge and look.

A second way to buttress human reasoning is to look for convergent lines of evidence. Consider a line of evidence that leads you to a 90% estimate of its veracity, so 10% chance of being incorrect. If you have two lines, each at 90%, then the chance of being incorrect is 1% (10% * 10%, making certain simplifying assumptions).

A third way is to look for different ways of interpreting the evidence. So, ‘Could this evidence be put together in a different way?’ For example, this is often useful in figuring out causal relationships, where cause and effect can be backwards from what is posited, say. Another useful question is ‘For this to be put together in this other way, what else would have to change?’ Consider the considerations for a geocentric or heliocentric model of the solar system, and what considerations seemed to mitigate against the latter historically.

So, this is why it’s usually a good idea to have a certain epistemic humility about reasoned-to conclusions (while simultaneously having epistemic courage in trying to figure out how a certain conclusion could work, how the evidence could be reassembled in a different way and make sense, or more sense).

God as exponential multiplier

A basic idea in Christianity is that you can do x, and if you align yourself to God, God through you can do x^n, say.*

What God does is good for you and good for society, so the idea goes. So why would you choose the former x?

The main answers are a) disbelief, or b) fear.

Both are met in the same way. Learn about and start to try out the practice of discernment. Start small if you want, and then see what results you get, but do it with an open heart – allow yourself that space to experiment for a bit. ‘Belief’ in God primarily just means trusting in God, and that means a relationship, and that means discernment, and then action.

Once you start to get results (it might be useful to record the results somewhere), reappraise. Iterate.

Anyone can try this – atheist or theist.

*(For example, let x = 10. Let n = 3. So, x = 10, x^n = 1,000. This mathematical relationship gets at the basic idea, where n in Christianity seems to be dependent on our openness to God and your practice of discernment, in particular. So the idea goes.)

Christianity has to be understood emotionally

To understand Christianity, it helps to understand it not just on a theological or abstract level, but on an emotional level – because Christianity is not just abstract theorizing, but a set of practices.

This is why music that demonstrates Christian ideas is important, or movies, or paintings, and so on.

Consider the concept of ‘peace’ in Christianity. I didn’t realize that when people say ‘Peace be with you’ at Mass, say, this is meant to refer to an emotional state. It is a blessing – so they are willing that the other person have inner peace, and at the same time (in theory) creating that peace in themselves (which they then intend to the other person). This reflects the saying attributed to Jesus of Nazareth that

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” (John 14:27)

For people to really get that Christians are talking about something good (an inner calm or peace), it helps to connect that with something which makes sense to contemporary people – nature, meditation, and so on, or to convey it through music, paintings, and so on.

(Indeed, things like spending time in nature, contemplative prayer, and so on can be part of the practice of developing an inner calm or peace in Christianity – which in turn is understood as part of connecting to God.)

So, this focus on inner peace, say, is important and useful, but to make an actual connection with people who are in, say, the secular world, one has to go beyond rote words and to effective conveyance of what those words refer to – i.e., create an emotional understanding.

The cross as a symbol of light

The history of the cross as a symbol in European or Mediterranean society is an interesting one, but what’s clear is that the cross has changed significance, and even within Christianity contains and has contained many different forms with different significances.

I think a useful way to think of the cross is as a pulse of light, as in a star.

This can be a dual meaning – cross as crucifix, and cross as new star, perhaps.

This better captures to me the dynamic, experiential nature of a central part of Christianity (‘light of the Holy Spirit’) as well as what the crucifixion is supposed to represent (a new light or link or possibility that has entered the universe).

Christianity as star-burst.

What is ‘divine revelation’?

Revelation, etymologically, means a ‘revealing’, and the word just means a revealing of knowledge.

Revelation occurs through things, the most obvious example being people who write things down.

How do they write things down? Well, they are inspired, which is a type of guidance.

In this sense, divine revelation occurs anytime someone is guided by God, whether that ends up in them writing something down or taking some other action.

According to Christianity, this isn’t some unique sort of event that occurred 2,000 years ago – people are constantly being guided by God, typically through the practice of discernment.

So, divine revelation is just guidance by God, whatever the action that follows from that is.

How will the Kingdom of God be manifested?

How will the Kingdom of God be manifested?

Although Christians believe that the Kingdom of God (= Good) can (will) manifest, and this is central to Christian thought and practice, not as central is how it might manifest.

According to Christianity, if history and everyday experience are a guide, then God works through things to bring about certain results. He guides people who do things or achieves results through processes in time. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that the Kingdom of God might manifest through people or things being guided by God.

So, what are we looking for – what does the Kingdom of God (sometimes referred to as Heaven) look like according to Christianity? It is a society in which humans have healthful, vigourous, fully physical bodies that are immortal (so, aren’t programmed to die), where the society itself is functioning on a very high level, and where humans co-reign with the living (i.e., on-going) Christ (i.e., divine wisdom) as stewards of earth and the universe more generally speaking. (This is the grand vision of Christianity.)

It seems we are moving towards aspects of something like this right now, and the principle way to do that is science and technology guided by the good (in Christianity, = God). Science and technology are essentially ‘figuring out how things work,’ and given the Christian view of things, they also move us closer to possible stewardship, in alignment with the Christ, of the planet and the universe more generally.

Since from the Christian perspective God uses various technologies to guide the world towards the Good already, it seems this is a potential path to helping to bring about the Kingdom of God.

Secular humanism and morality

The question here isn’t whether secular humanists can be moral exemplars – on certain indices of morality, at least, of course they can be. The question here, rather, is whether secular humanism is true.

One approach with secular humanism is to say that, on an individual level, we want our society to become better, and so it makes sense to advocate for laws that will create this (and support punitive measures against those who transgress them). Among other things, this includes support for laws that might help to curb self-interest in favour of social interest. Hence, through self-interest we are able to generate a society that overcomes mere self-interest and instead creates social goods, and so tends to actually further self-interest.

This makes sense, and is shared by Christianity. The problem is that it doesn’t address the question of why on an individual level one should do what is right, in a specific instance, if it conflicts with one’s self-interest. For a common intuition is that there are some things we ought to do, even though they could conflict with our self-interest.

This problem leads to two further secular humanist approaches.

The first is to explain these sorts of moral intuitions by appeal to evolution. The basic idea is that we have intuitions which were selected for because they helped to get the individuals or societies who had those intuitions to survive and then reproduce, more than those who did not have those intuitions.

If our moral intuitions are just evolutionarily selected, though, for the purpose of increasing fitness, then why should we follow them in a particular, individual case if they conflict with our self-interest?

So, this second approach leads to a kind of nihilism – the view that there is no good reason to follow them – at the individual level – when they conflict with our self-interest. I.e., at best, the intuitions are rough guides to what might be good for us or our society (so see the first approach), but there is no good reason to follow them at the individual level in a specific instance if that means a conflict with our self-interest. (So, if we can get away with it, by breaking the law or what have you.)

The unsatisfactoriness of this kind of moralistic nihilism leads to a second approach, which is that there is an objective moral order reflected by these moral intuitions, and which applies individually. Here, our evolutionary intuitions for some reason do get close to this objective order in at least some cases, and we ought to follow them at the individual level. The reason to follow them is not because of self-interest but simply because it is right – and so posits that what is right is intrinsically worthwhile from an individual perspective.

The basic problem, though, from a secular perspective is that it posits an objective moral order that is relevant in a direct, personal way even when it conflicts with self-interest. I.e., where did this moral order come from? What is its nature?

Typically, these questions are left unanswered. However, one of the chief supposed benefits of the secular humanist approach (not positing something like God) now comes partially undone, because this objective moral order is getting pretty close to something like aspects of the Christian God – yet without the contextual conceptual framework that situates and says why this exists, as Christianity attempts to do.

So, it doesn’t seem like there’s a satisfactory picture of morality in secular humanist terms.

How miracles happen

If ‘miracles’ occur (i.e., God affecting the universe, manifested through non-chance coincidings – etymologically, miracle just means an event that causes wonder), the pattern that is observed is that they (at least tend to) occur somehow and they occur through things.

(It is probably useful to note before proceeding that these non-chance coincidings attributable to God, according to Christianity, seem to happen quite often. For example, although a dramatic non-chance coinciding might not happen often in a given person’s life, if you multiply that by the number of people on the globe, the number of supposed dramatic miracles occurring is very high indeed.)

So, to explain a miracle by showing how it happened isn’t to really explain the miracle. What requires explanation is the probability – was it likely or not given some standard background repertoire of explanation?

For example, take a story from the Old Testament (because it can act as a common point of reference), of Moses striking a rock and water flowing, which supposedly replenished the people and livestock. Let us assume here that this is based on something that actually happened. How would this have happened? Well, presumably there was a water source somewhere in the desert, and Moses somehow found it.

This seems like it would be unlikely given conventional explanations. So, if you say “Aha! There was just this water behind or under a rock, and then Moses just happened to strike the rock, and so release the water! No miracle involved!” this is to misunderstand the situation, because miracles occur through things – there will probably be some back story like this. Rather, what has to be explained is the probability – is it reasonable to posit that this occurred through conventional mechanisms?

(The secular response to this is to explain away most seeming non-chance coincidings where the events are recent (unlike various events in the Gospels, say, where the evidential situation is different due to the intervening time). This can be done because the probability frameworks are difficult to establish, and so one can maintain that it was chance, or some more conventional causal explanation that doesn’t require great improbabilities, even though it might seem otherwise.)

Faith and science conflicting

The idea that faith and science conflict is, I think, largely the result of a category error.

That is, the primary sense of ‘faith’ within Christianity is that of trust (see here). I.e., it refers to a relationship that exists between a person and (say) God, and the attitude of listening to and then trusting the guidance one receives from God on various issues. The trust is warranted because one can trust and then see what the results are, and repeat this pattern – as trust is warranted in almost any relationship. To say faith and science conflict would be like saying warranted trust in a given person and science conflict. It doesn’t make much sense.

What is typically being referred to when people talk about a conflict is ‘faith’ in the sense of certain abstract beliefs that Christians might have. This is ‘faith’ in a secondary sense. For example, was there an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth – yes or no? Did he resurrect bodily? And so on. Relevant investigation or new evidence (archaeological, historical, experiential (such as St. Paul’s purported experience), and so on) can shed light on, and make more or less plausible, these ideas.

However, if this is what people mean, it’s not clear why they don’t say this. So, instead of ‘faith and science conflict’, they rather should say ‘the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and science conflict,’ or ‘resurrection and science conflict,’ or ‘Lutheranism and science conflict,’ or ‘theism and science conflict’, or some such thing.

This is more accurate, and linguistically more sensible. Using ‘faith’ here is bound to lead to confusion, and I think gets its source in a kind of conceptual laziness.

What is the basic idea with God and the right?

In Christianity, what is the basic idea about God and the right?

The basic idea is that God is or is aligned with the good, and seeks to bring into existence a universe in which the good is manifested.

This involves the idea that there is an ordering of the universe (and functioning of the beings in it) that is good (or closer to the good than otherwise).

Furthermore, according to Christianity, we can act in ways that get us closer or further away from this, and God can guide us in so doing.

There is debate about the exact relationship between God and what is right (is it right because God says so, or does God say so because that’s what’s right). Yet, it is sometimes easy to obscure the above basic aspect. Whatever the exact relationship between God and the right, according to Christianity the good is not something willy-nilly or an arbitrary thing.

I.e., according to Christianity, if what is right is right because God says so in some sense (as some think), then God saying so is part and parcel of His being as Goodness.

Furthermore, according to Christianity we have faculties which enable us to see what is good or right, and so if God were to say something contrary, we would be able to see that.

In this sense, then, the debate in the Christian context over the exact relationship between God and the right is to an extent academic.