Monthly Archives: January 2016

Coherence and prediction

Theologians seek to find a coherent account of things. That is well and good (although sometimes breakthroughs come from actively disregarding certain things – what we think we know isn’t always right, and anyone can sometimes get a breakthrough in trying to solve a problem by saying ‘what if this particular ‘fact’ is actually not the case, even though people tend to take it to be the case?’). That is to say, theologians look to figure out how certain ideas and observations can cohere.

The next step is to find relatively independent confirmation. One might have a nice theory that seems to comport with the observations – which in itself might be a significant breakthrough. Yet, it’s just the first step. Now go out and figure out how to test it, beyond the coherence.

In a nutshell, this figuring-out-how-to-test is the essence of the scientific method, to the extent there is one. To the extent theologians adopt this, they become scientists. To the extent someone does not – especially if they set up a theoretical model that seems to be able to account for any and all new observations – they are just blowing smoke.

Context matters

What is the basic perspective in Christianity, when it comes to one’s actions?

First, learning and growing both for what we are doing in this life and what we will do in the next. In Christian terms, the learning is primarily understood as part of the process of ‘theosis’ – i.e., becoming more like God. Ascetics, similarly, is about training, i.e., learning and growing (from a root word meaning bodily training, from which we also get ‘athletics’).

But that leads to what we are doing – you don’t just practice making a building, you make buildings. So second, doing things that matter. These are things that matter in and of themselves here and now, and that will build things in the next life. In Christian terms, this is called ‘building the Kingdom of Heaven’.

This dual vision – training and doing – is compatible with a typical secular viewpoint, and for this reason much of Christian reasoning or practices are shared by secularists. The difference comes in the context – Christians believe the training or doing applies not just to this life, but the next. I.e., there is meaningful continued personal existence. This does two things.

First, it amplifies the importance – we are no longer just talking about the next 50 years, but the next (eternity). This is one of the reasons that Christianity has greater motivational potential. Second, it means there might be consequences to things that we cannot see by considering only this life. This allows Christianity to answer certain moral questions that secularists seemingly cannot (such as why do good things if they don’t benefit oneself – the answer is that by doing good things you are in part creating a state of affairs in the next life). Similarly, because it coincides self-interest and actions that aren’t self-interested in this life, it also gains motivational potential when considering things that are good for people here and now.

How does God act?

How does the Christian God act?

I want to suggest an hypothesis, which is summarized as follows.

1. Miracles are marked out by (as the name suggests – ‘miraculum’ meaning wonder) their tendency to cause wonder.

2. They cause wonder because the observer notices the event seems highly unlikely to have occurred in the way it did, even though, for example, they witnessed it (hence, wonder at how it occurred).

3. What is unlikely is the coordination of things in the world.

4. These sorts of events are on-going and widespread.

Before discussing the advantages of this hypothesis, a brief aside on the supernatural-natural notion.

Supernatural vs. natural causes

Consider if someone claimed electromagnetic phenomena were ‘supernatural’ and contact mechanics was ‘natural’. OK, but in what way does that distinction make a difference in the cause-and-effect world? For the people drawing up equations and models of electromagnetic activity, it’s not clear why this kind of distinction would matter. Electromagnetic phenomena operates in a very different way from contact mechanics, but so what?

What I’m interested in here is how God (supposedly) acts, not in theological speculation about what ‘kind’ God’s acts are. Instead of theology -> theory of how God acts, I rather observation -> theory of how God acts.

Consider. The idea of supernatural causation is about a creator ‘outside’ of nature. Nature (the universe) is a creation of God. Involved in this notion of God being the creator of nature are theological ideas, such as God being necessary, unchanging, outside of time, and so on. These are all important theological topics.

That the Christian God is such a being is debatable. Christians need not look to the Old Testament to figure out how the universe came into being, but if a Christian is looking to the Old Testament, the accounts of what God did don’t seem to be a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), even though creation ex nihilo is the standard Christian theological view nowadays. Rather, God is portrayed as shaping or ordering something – perhaps as a potter crafts clay to form pottery.

Yet, to what extent does the idea of a God existing outside of the universe impact our understanding of how God acts? For example, if Jesus healed someone, was this a natural or supernatural event? Well, it was unusual, and no one knows how it would have happened, but for all that it could have occurred within creation, i.e., without any kind of (special) outside-of-nature activity. That it’s unusual, or because we don’t have a well worked out model of how it works, doesn’t mean it’s supernatural. This is an old point, and I hope it’s obvious.

Now consider 3. If it’s right, then when looking at miracles, the ‘efficient causes’, so to speak, at least in most cases, should be findable. Yet, you don’t explain the miracle of the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, say, by saying ‘there was a donkey, and someone found it’. Instead, you have to explain the likelihood of it. It is the unlikeliness that points to God’s activity, i.e., a miracle.

This is why the Catholic church’s attempts to discern if something is a miracle are misled (and this mistake is based on their theology, and in particular the supernatural-natural distinction about God’s activity originating ‘outside’ of nature). They attempt to see if any known natural cause could account for the miracle. Being unable to find one, they conclude it is a miracle. This leads to ignoring large amounts of what Christians take to be everyday miracles, and excludes ascribing to God these miracles by definition.

Yet, when Christians talk about everyday miracles, they are almost always talking about natural causes that have been coordinated in an unlikely way. What’s key (under the theory I am here expounding) isn’t natural causes but how likely it is that those causes came together in the way they did. We can say God’s activity can be found in the ‘final’ cause, not a lack of natural ‘efficient’ causes.

Advantages of this characterization of miracles

1. It describes a large number of miracles Christians report, where there are conventional operators but unconventional coordination of them.

2. For miracles where it is not clear if it’s just the coordination of conventional operators, this is a matter of our knowledge. We don’t know what’s going on, and so it could be just a coordination.

3. It is compatible with either supernaturalism or naturalism – God can be conceived as the creator in the sense of being ‘outside’ of the universe and creating all things ex nihilo, or a creator in the sense of being ‘inside’ of the universe and creating all things as a ‘shaper’ of pre-existing aspects of the universe.


Robert Barron and the nature of the world

In a review of a pop. movie, Robert Barron writes that

The Revenant is unremittingly honest in its portrayal of people caught in the awful reality of this fallen world, which is marked through and through by violence, suspicion, hatred, revenge, and the constant struggle to survive in the context of an indifferent nature. For the denizens of this universe, the correct mottos are indeed “kill or be killed” and “love your friends but hate your enemies” and “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

If there is no God, as Fitzgerald suggests to one of his underlings, survival at any cost, the law of the jungle, is the supreme law. But if there is a dimension that transcends nature, if there is a God who provides a moral compass and presides over human affairs, then one can let go of vengeance and seek a higher justice. The film ends just as this consciousness of God dawns on Glass.

This characterization of a world without a certain conception of God echoes early naturalists’ descriptions of the natural world ‘red in tooth and claw’, characterized almost completely by zero-sum competition.

Yet, the actual natural world is characterized by both competition and cooperation. Both of these dynamics are engendered by more basic variables in the natural world. Although some have thought aspects of cooperation more difficult to explain than aspects of competition, my guess is that this is a bias, perhaps created by Christian notions of man’s (and the world’s) fallen nature.

What are some examples of cooperation? It’s all around us.

Multicellular creatures function because they have a bunch of different cells cooperating together. The cooperation dynamic is occurring basically whenever you see a multicellular organism.

Cooperation and altruism, more broadly speaking, are widespread in nature, found most often between kin (prominent examples include many parent-child relationships, or ant or bee colonies).

Yet, symbiotic (and similar kinds of) relationships outside of kin are also quite common.

The point here is that the natural world is not simply ‘kill or be killed’, or what have you. Indeed, even the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’ was intended to limit a spiralling cycle of violence. Retribution had to be proportional to the offense.

Two significant points of Jesus’ teaching to let go of anger and hatred are that it improves a) one’s society, but b) one’s own life. The primary person affected by one’s anger (and so on – various negative emotions) is oneself. These dual insights are what make his teaching so powerful – for the individual who adopts it in his own life, and for a society that figures out how to implement it.

Coming together as a group, people can recognize a), and put into place various societal measures (laws, customs, and so on) that lead to an improvement in the mutual society.

Regardless, one can put into action b) in ‘enlightened self-interest’.

The point here is that Jesus’ teaching, at least in significant part, isn’t dependent on ultimate retribution by God, but rather by more basic psychological and sociological insights.

Similarly, cooperation in nature or between men makes sense in many cases – it comes about by the same basic dynamics that can lead to competition.

Perspective in eschatology

This map of countries drawn relative to global population (I haven’t verified the dimensions, but intuitively it looks plausible) brings to mind one thing. If you’re looking at things from the Christian God’s (supposed) perspective, He’s presumably thinking not just about certain individuals but also the bigger going-on’s.


For example, if you live in Australia, it might be tempting to give an outsized importance to what’s happening there. Yet, Australia is only about 0.5% of the world’s population. (In the above cartogram, it looks more like Iceland.)

Similarly, when considering evidence for or against some eschatological theory or other, it might be useful to get perspective. What is and has been happening as far as global trends are concerned? Not just, what’s happening in my country, or such-and-such part of the world?

Why care about Christianity? Examples

Following this post, if you don’t understand Christianity it will be very difficult to understand Western Civilization. Some examples, and associated general patterns.

1. Tolkien was a devout Christian, and Christian themes pervade his The Lord of the Rings. It is entirely possible to read his works and simply enjoy the escapist fantasy, adventure, and so on. Yet, if you really want to plumb the meaning of his novels, you have to understand significant parts of Christianity. A similar case can be made for much of Western literature.

2. Columbus. The experts of the day thought the world was much bigger than Columbus thought (and they turned out to be right). It just so happened that there was a land mass near abouts where Columbus thought Asia would be. Columbus thought he was being told by God to sail west. You can’t understand the history of western exploration without understanding the pivotal trip of Columbus, and you can’t understand that without understanding something of Columbus’ Christianity. A similar case can be made for much of Western geographical expansion – it is difficult to understand it without understanding something of Christianity, not just at an abstract level but on an individual level.

3. Newton, besides being probably the most important scientist yet, wrote a large amount of theology. Most of this was unpublished, and discovered after his death (so he wasn’t writing it to ingratiate himself with the authorities, or what have you). It’s clear that theological issues mattered greatly to Newton. How can you understand what he accomplished without understanding some of the Christian ideas that motivated or informed him? Similarly with Boyle, Faraday, and on and on. Most of the pillars of modern science were devout Christians. How can you understand the unique development of science within the Christian West without understanding Christianity?

4. Bach. It’s straightforwardly clear that Bach’s music is beautiful, and one can simply enjoy it on that level (as with Tolkien’s works). Yet, Bach was a very well-informed Christian, and you can’t really understand what’s going on in his music without understanding the (supposed) events he is writing about. So on and so forth for much of Western music.

Historical trends and Christian eschatology

What are some of the historical trends over the last 2,000 years as relates to Christian eschatology?

For all of these things, I am looking in the long-term and overall. These trends haven’t all been constant.

1. and 2. Communications and knowledge. Basically, the ability to communicate has increased. If humans are the ‘body of Christ’, then that body has added important aspects of its nervous system. Of course, a lot of the new communications is noise or spread of falsehoods or ‘misdirection’, yet if you were to think of humans as a super-organism on the likes of an ant colony or bee colony (the latter being a traditional Christian motif for understanding human relations), one would expect for a kind of communication system to develop along with the organism.

Combine this with humans having increased significantly their understanding of cause-and-effect systems in the universe. This has led to various things, such as making the idea of humans as stewards of the Earth (and even the entire universe) something that sounds much more plausible now as opposed to 2,000 years ago, or the idea of physical bodies that are immortal more plausible.

These changes in plausibility of core ideas related to Christianity weren’t just coincidental to Christianity – the rise of science was caused by Christian institutions (such as the various universities), Christian men (most of whom in the early, most difficult stage of science were devoutly pious), and specifically Christian motivations (such as wanting to understand the mind of God better, believing that God would create a basically reasonable physical universe, and so on).

Countering this, you have a seeming decrease in the output:input ratio for important scientific progress. Simply put, the average scientist seems to be achieving much, much less than the average scientist 150 years ago (indeed, the decrease in impact of a given scientist seems to track the rise in secularism). Nonetheless, a good case can be made that significant scientific progress is still being made, and science has now become a global (instead of almost entirely European) process.

3. Rise of Christianity. The idea that Christianity would become a global phenomenon was not in evidence in the first century A.D. Indeed, the first disciples of Jesus of Nazareth didn’t even know most of the land mass in the world that existed. The idea that Christianity even could reach ‘every tribe and every nation’ was, practically speaking, impossible when they were given the ‘great commission’. Yet, first it expanded around the Mediterranean, then through Europe. Then with the rise of the European explorers, it moved to the Americas and parts of Asia (such as the Philippines). Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, it has continued to expand, in particular in Asia and Africa.

Of course, this has not been a one-sided affair. You also have the rise of secularism (in particular in Europe, but also to a lesser extent in the United States). You also have a parallel rise of Islam (although originally known as a Christian heresy, due to its reliance on Jewish and Christian stories and the recognition of Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet), and the removal of Christians from various parts of the Middle East. Yet, on the whole and overall, we are continuing to see Christianity expanding, both in numbers of adherents and geographical reach.

These are a few trends that might be relevant for a Christian eschatology. Where does that leave us as far as evidence for this or that eschatology?

How to test eschatology

Since we have approximately 2,000 years since the time of Jesus of Nazareth, empirical results can be applied to any hypothesis concerning Christian eschatology (from ‘eskhatos’, which means ‘last’ or ‘furthermost’).

For example, some people believed the second coming of Christ was going to happen ‘imminently’, within their natural life times, in the 1st century. It seems fairly clear this was incorrect (or at least their conceptualization of what that meant), and much of the early Christian community seems to have believed it.

(This is also an important datum when considering arguments that such-and-such is true because the early Christian community believed it.)

Any theologian at least worth his weight in salt should be carefully surveying the history of human societies for the last 2,000 years, to see what can be said regarding Christian eschatology. Mere exegesis, however cogent or stringent, or abstract theologizing probably will not be sufficient.