Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A "conversation" with Tim Keller

[The following, in case it is not immediately obvious, is fiction.]

Ron: Hello, Rev. Keller. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Tim: You are most welcome. It is no great imposition, particularly since you are letting me borrow some of your brainpower to hold up my end of the conversation.

R: Yes, that will actually come to be quite relevant later on in our little chat. But I'm getting way ahead of myself. I invited you here because I saw the video of the talk you gave at Google and I was quite impressed (not convinced, mind you, just impressed), enough that I was motivated to buy and read the book you were plugging...

T: Please, I was not "plugging" my book. It's just that the issues I raise are so complex and nuanced that an hour is not nearly enough time to do them justice, so I have to point people to the book for the details.

R: I apologize for my poor choice of words. Let us return to the matter at hand. I think you are striving towards some very important goals, but I disagree with some of the conclusions that you come to. I would like an opportunity to challenge you on some of these points, and maybe even reach some common understanding. (That is what you're aiming for, isn't it?)

T: Indeed it is. The central motivation for my book was to address the increased polarization of society between faith on the one hand and secularism on the other. Both sides are growing increasingly belligerent in their rhetoric, and I fear that if this trend is not reversed the result will be social catastrophe.

R: Yes, I completely agree. So let us build this exchange on the foundation of that bit of common ground. You also argue that secularism requires no less a leap of faith than religion.

T: That's right. All beliefs are grounded in unprovable assumptions, which is to say, in faith of some sort. But the defense of my position is rather lengthy and is laid out in detail in...

R: ... your book, yes, I know. If I may, I think we can short-circuit this part of the conversation because I actually agree with you. Science (or secularism or atheism or whatever you want to call non-belief in God) requires just as much a leap of faith as any religion. In fact, I have encouraged (to the extent that a non-academic like myself is able to do so) my secular brethren to embrace the idea that Science (with a capital S) is a religion. I think it's a much stronger position the the usual view that Science is fundamentally different from all other belief systems.

T: Well, I find that quite disarming. You are the first atheist (do you mind if I call you that?) that I have met that has conceded that point so quickly. The amount of common ground we are finding here (without even trying very hard) is quite remarkable. Perhaps we will find that we agree on everything and we can cut short this entire conversation and go get a bite to eat.

R: You can call me an atheist if you must, but I don't like the term because it has too much baggage associated with it. In particular, I do not identify with much of the vitriolic rhetoric coming from people like Dawkins and Harris. That's one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, because I think there's a chance for us to make some real progress here. Alas, I am not quite so sanguine about the possibility of adjourning by lunch time, but who knows? Stranger things have happened.

T: Indeed. Miracles happen all the time.

R: We'll see. But as long as we're on a roll I'd like to agree with another one of your propositions, which is that one cannot prove that God does not exist. Moreover, I'm sure that Dawkins and Harris would readily concede this. You cannot prove a negative. Dawkins' answer to this is also my answer: indeed you cannot prove that God (by which is meant the god of Abraham) does not exist, but neither can you prove that Thor or Kthulu or the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not exist.

T: I think there's a lot more evidence for Jesus than there is for the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

R: Perhaps. The point is just that your argument that God's existence cannot be disproven is a straw-man. Even the most strident atheist will readily concede that point.

T: Very well. What is your position then?

R: I'll get to that in a minute. But first, I'd like to propose one more bit of common ground that we might use as a foundation for this discussion. (I predict this will be the last one.) See this basketball?

T: Well, no, actually I don't.

R: OK, work with me here. Suspend your disbelief for a moment (have a little faith?) and imagine that we are really having this conversation, and that I am holding a basketball in my hands.

T: Very well.

R: Do you believe that this basketball exists?

T: I sense a rhetorical trap being set, but OK, I'll bite. Yes, I believe this basketball exists.

R: I give you my word that this is not a rhetorical trap. The point I want to make is not nearly so facile. The only reason I'm resorting to making it with an imaginary basketball is that you're not really here. If you were to make some time to actually meet with me I would make the exact same argument with a real, physical basketball. (It doesn't even have to be a basketball. Any every-day object will do. I just happened to pick a basketball because I thought the word had a certain pleasing way of rolling trippingly off my keyboard.)

T: Very well. Since we seem to be building a relationship of mutual trust and respect here I will concede the point and stipulate that this basketball exists.

R: Good. Now, I will go further and claim that at least part of the reason that you believe that this basketball exists is that you can directly experience it. If I dribble it [bounce!] you can hear the sound it makes. If I toss it to you (think fast!) you can feel it. Yes?

T: Well, applying suspension of disbelief here (since in point of fact this basketball does not really exist), yes, I will agree that if there were a real basketball here, my direct physical experience would figure prominently in the thought process that leads me to conclude that it exists. However there is still a leap of faith involved because I have to assume that my senses and thought processes are reliable. I can't prove that.

R: Yes, I thought we had already agreed that at root everything requires some leap of faith. But here, let me help you with your suspension of disbelief.

[A basketball suddenly appears out of nowhere.]

T: Say, that's a pretty neat trick. How did you do that?

R: A magician never reveals his secrets.

T: So let me try to anticipate where you're going with this. You want to use this basketball as an example of a material object whose existence no one doubts. Is that right?

R: Wow, you're good. It's almost as if you could read my mind.

T: Yes, well, my ESP is working better than normal today.

R: Indeed. So yes, that is exactly right. The last bit of common ground that I want to establish is that there are things in the world -- like basketballs -- whose existence is wholly uncontroversial at least in part because they can be directly experienced. I do not claim that this in any way proves that this basketball actually exists in a metaphysical sense, only that we -- and most people in the world -- can agree that it exists (even though we cannot definitively eliminate the possibility that we could be wrong). In fact, we can reach such a strong level of consensus that if we met someone who genuinely denied the existence of this basketball we would question their sanity.

T: Or think them to be a philosopher.

R: Doesn't that amount to the same thing? [wink]

T: If I were really here I would give you a wry look. But in any case, I am willing to accept the existence of everyday material objects as uncontroversial, at least within the context of a discussion of the social discord brought about by the polarization of secularism and faith.

R: Good. I'm pretty sure that's the last thing we'll agree on for a while.

T: Don't be so pessimistic.

R: Don't underestimate my prophetical abilities. I am going now going to argue that by your own standards atheism is better than Christianity.

T: Hm, you may well have been correct about our leaving common ground behind for a while.

R: Yes, I thought as much. So let us make sure we're on the same page about what your standards are. In your book you argue that Christianity ought to be taken seriously (at least) because it offers the best hope for bringing people together and healing the societal rift between the religious and the secular.

T: Again oversimplified, but basically correct.

R: OK, first I would like to point out that this is at odds with what Jesus himself said. "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law." (Matthew 10:34-35)

T: You are quoting those verses out of context, and seriously misinterpreting what they mean. Jesus is simply prophesizing (correctly, I might add) what the result of his ministry will be. It wasn't his intent to bring about discord. It is man's imperfection and inability (or unwillingness) to accept His Word that causes it.

R: I have always found it odd that a supposedly all-powerful God can be rendered impotent by man's obstinance (or imperfections).

T: Now you are the one erecting straw-men. God is not impotent. He chose to give us free will. It is one of His greatest gifts to us.

R: Raymond Smullyan had some interesting things to say about that. But we must be careful not to get distracted by too many tangents or we'll be here all day. My point is just that empirically, Christianity has not been particularly effective at bringing about the social synthesis that you seek, and that was anticipated by no less than Jesus Himself. Indeed, in the U.S. most of the beligerance on the religious side of the social divide comes from people who call themselves Christians.

T: I most emphatically do not see eye-to-eye with the Westboro Baptist Church.

R: I didn't think you did. The fact that you do not agree with them is precisely my point: even among those who call themselves Christians there are huge disagreements about what Christianity is all about. And these disagreements go back to the very beginnings of Christianity. It wasn't until the Council of Nicea, three hundred years after Jesus's death, that Christians even managed to agree on whether or not Jesus was divine. And this sort of thing permeates the history of the church even to this day.

T: Well, you have Dawkins and Harris (and Hitler and Stalin). We have Fred Phelps.

R: Hitler was a Catholic, but again let us not get distracted by tangents. The point is not that Christianity has its extremists. The point is that Christianity cannot even heal the rifts within itself. That does not bode well for Christianity as a path for healing the rifts in society as a whole.

T: I never said it would be easy.

R: Indeed not. But the fact that it is not easy cannot be so lightly dismissed.

T: I do not dismiss it lightly.

R: But you just did. You said, "I never said it would be easy," and left it at that as if there was nothing more to be said. But (and this is crucial) the fact that it is not easy completely undermines your position.

T: I don't see how.

R: Well, your position is that we are saved from sin and evil through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But the mere fact of his death and resurrection are not enough. You have to believe that Jesus died for our sins in order to reap the benefits.

T: That is technically correct, but your choice of words is misleading. It is not like God is playing some kind of game where he challenges us to profess belief in some arbitrary incredible thing or be damned for all eternity. God is not so petty. We achieve salvation through God's grace, and it is simply impossible -- spiritually, physically, logically impossible -- to receive Grace without believing that it is real. Grace is like love. (In fact, Grace is love.) It is not possible to receive someone's love if you don't believe that they love you.

R: Of course it is. When I was growing up there were many occasions when I was convinced that my parents hated me, like when they made me eat my lima beans for example. But that didn't change the reality that in fact they did love me, and that I was the beneficiary of that love.

T: Hm, that's actually not a bad metaphor. I may want to use it in my next sermon on theodicy. Yes, your parents did love you even as they watched you gag on your lima beans, just as God loves us even as he watches us suffer. But as long as you were angry with your parents your relationship with them was imperfect. To fully realize a loving relationship there has to be both love and a belief that that love is real.

R: Agreed. But the problem is that the nature of God's love is not so clear.

T: It is quite clear to me.

R: Yes, and if everyone in the world could easily achieve the same level of clarity we would not be having this discussion. Just as we don't have to spend a lot of time arguing about basketballs.

T: Well, that is why I wrote my book.

R: Which brings me back to the same point: why was it necessary for you to write your book? Why is God's Word so obscured that it requires so many books to be written about it?

T: Because love is more complicated than basketballs.

R: To be sure. But why didn't God write your book? Why didn't God communicate his Word in such a way that it would be understood without the need for all this additional clarification? Either it is possible to communicate the Word in a way that will be understood or it is not. If it is, why didn't God just communicate that way to begin with? And if it isn't, aren't your efforts futile?

T: Maybe God is using me (and my book) to do exactly what you suggest.

R: That is possible. But I read your book and found it utterly unconvincing, so God still doesn't seem to be doing a very good job of getting through, at least not to me.

T: God is not going to force himself on you. You have to let him in.

R: I would like nothing better. Truly, if God is real, I want to know. But I've read the Bible (not every word, but a lot of it) and I've read your book and many others besides, and I am still not convinced.

T: Not convinced of what?

R: Of the central tenets of Christianity (as described by you in your book): that a triune God created me in His image, that I am separated from God by sin, that God became man and died on the cross to redeem me. I don't believe any of that.

T: Can you tell me why?

R: I could, but that would be a very long conversation, and it would be mostly tangential to the real point I want to make.

T: How about just a few examples. It would be helpful for me to know where my book falls short.

R: Very well, if you insist. There are so many problems it is hard to know where to begin. Let's see. How about this. In chapter 6 you address the issue of the apparent conflicts between science and the Bible. (I applaud you for taking on this issue by the way. It is very important.) You write:

"[I]t is false logic to argue that if one part of the scripture can't be taken literally then none of it can be. That isn't true of any human communication."

What you say is true, but it undermines your position in two ways. First, the Bible is not (according to you) a human communication. It is the inerrant Word of God.

T: It is still a human communication. The Bible was written by humans, albeit inspired and guided by God.

R: OK, but that leaves you with the second problem: if not all of the Bible can be taken literally (and I will note in passing that not who call themselves Christian will concede that) then you are left with the problem of deciding which parts can and which cannot. How can you possibly make those decisions? Logically there are only two alternatives. Either you take the fundamentalist position that the Bible is perfect and every word should be taken literally, or you have to rely on some extra-Biblical authority to pass judgement on how any given Biblical passage is to be interpreted (because the Bible itself provides no explicit guidance in that regard).

T: It's pretty clear that parts of the Bible are just poetry. The Song of Solomon for example...

R: Maybe it's clear to you. It's not clear to a fundamentalist. And it's certainly not clear to me. (As far as I can tell, the entire Bible is nothing but a collection of bronze-age myths.) How do we resolve this conflict? We obviously can't rely on the Bible to do it.

T: There is independent corroboration for much of what the Bible says. And in particular, there is overwhelming evidence that what the Bible has to say about Jesus is really true, and that is what really matters.

R: You've changed the subject, but I'll let that slide. Very well, let's talk about Jesus. Some of the things you say are just flat-out wrong. For example, you write:

Jesus's miracles ... were never [just] magic tricks.... You never hear him say something like, "See that tree over there? Watch me make it burst into flames."

It is ironic that you would choose that example, because that is almost exactly what Jesus does in Matthew 21:18-22.

You also write, in support of the Biblical account of the Resurrection:

For a highly altered, fictionalized account of an event to take hold in the public imagination it is necessary that the eyewitnesses (and their children and grandchildren) all be long dead.

First, it is far from clear that the (alleged) eyewitness accounts of the Resurrection took hold "in the public imagination" before the (alleged) witnesses (and their children and their grandchildren) were dead. Even by your own reckoning, the very earliest accounts of the Resurrection were not written until ten or fifteen years after it had happened, and the earliest Gospel (Mark) was not written until thirty or forty years later. Furthermore, the earliest known copies of Mark do not include an account of the Resurrection!

Second, there are eyewitness accounts of all kinds of things that (almost certainly) didn't actually happen. Bigfoot. Alien abductions. Witchcraft. The miracles of Mohammed.

Third, there are internal inconsistencies in the Resurrection accounts. For example, Mark reports Mary, Mary and Salome finding Jesus's empty tomb in great detail, even quoting the "young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side." (Who was this young man? He couldn't have been an angel because the Bible says unequivocally that he was a man.) But then it says, "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid."

If they said nothing to anyone, how did the author of Mark know what had transpired?

It gets worse. 1 Corinthians 15:5 reports that Jesus "appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve." This is at odds with Mark, which does not report a separate appearance to Peter. Moreoever, who are "the Twelve"? Presumably these are the twelve disciples. But there is one little problem: one of the Twelve was Judas Iscariot, and Judas was already dead, having hanged himself three days earlier. (Mark gets this right, saying that Jesus appeared "to the eleven.")

1 Corinthians then goes on to say that Jesus, "...appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have died." You cite this as evidence that the Resurrection must have happened because:

Here Paul... lists the eyewitnesses. Paul indicates that the risen Jesus not only appeared to individuals and small groups, but also appeared to five hundred people at once, most of whom were still alive at the time of his writing and could be consulted for corroboration.

But Paul does not "list" the eyewitnesses! He only says that there were 500 of them. He doesn't say who they actually were. So how exactly would one consult them? (To say nothing of the fact that the 500 were "of the brothers", that is, they were believers, and so any account they had of seeing their spiritual leader risen from the dead would be suspect to say the least.)

Fourth, you argue that the Resurrection must have happened because it was a singular event in history. You write, "the Christian view of resurrection, absolutely unprecedented in history, sprang up full-blown immediately after the death of Jesus." But Jesus's resurrection was not unprecedented. There was at least one other resurrection that preceded it: Lazarus was also raised from the dead. Not only that, but Lazarus was resurrected after being dead four days, not just three. So not only was Jesus's death not unprecedented even by Biblical standards, he didn't even set the record for longest time dead before coming back!

T: But Lazarus was resurrected by Jesus!

R: Why should that matter? Don't forget, we're not discussing Jesus's ability to perform miracles here, we're discussing whether or not the Resurrection really happened. If you wish to argue that we should believe in the historicity of the resurrection in part because it was an unprecedented event, how do you account for the fact that A) it was not an unprecedented event according to the Bible and B) Lazarus's resurrection -- which was even more remarkable in and of itself than Jesus's (because it came first and Lazarus had been dead longer) -- attracted no historical attention at all? There is not a single independent account of it anywhere outside of the Gospel of John (which, by the way, was written decades after these events supposedly took place). It is inescapable. The more I study the Bible the clearer it becomes to me that it has only the most tenuous grounding in historical fact. (And I'm not the only one. Bart Ehrman thinks so too, and he's a born-again Christian! Or at least he was.)

T: My, you've covered a lot of territory here. May I respond?

R: You may, but it's important to keep in mind that my aim here was not to convince you that the Resurrection didn't happen. I can't prove that, and I know there's no hope of convincing you that I am right. My aim is simply to show you some of the reasons that *I* don't believe in the Resurrection, and to hopefully convince you that I've come to this conclusion not out of ignorance or prejudice but after careful study and consideration. I don't want to convince you that I am right. My hope is only to convince you that my position is defensible, that the case for the resurrection is not quite the slam-dunk you say it is.

T: Well, I think it is a slam-dunk, but I will grant that you seem to have given it careful consideration, even if I think you've reached the wrong conclusion.

R: That's good enough for now. I don't want to reach agreement about the Resurrection (because that's hopeless). What I hope to reach agreement on is simply the proposition that reasonable people can disagree about it in a way that reasonable people cannot disagree about, say, the existence of this basketball here. Will you concede that much?

T: I am very reluctant to do so, but this discussion (and my empty stomach) has left me emotionally drained, so I suppose I will for now. I feel sorry for you.

R: Really? Why?

T: Because you do not know God's love. You must be a very empty person. If you don't believe that you were created by God in his image then you must believe that you are just some kind of cosmic accident whose existence has no purpose or meaning.

R: I believe no such thing, and I will thank you not to make such presumptions.

T: Under the circumstances I think it's unfair for you to take me to task for "my" choice of words.

R: But those words are an almost direct quote from your book: "[T]he nonexistence of God ... not only makes all moral choices meaningless, it makes all life meaningless too."

T: Well, doesn't it? If we are just random agglomerations of matter, what can possibly provide life with transcendent meaning?

R: Information.

T: I'm afraid you lost me.

R: Let me explain. You believe that a person has intrinsic value.

T: That's right, because we are created in the image of God.

R: Does a person's intrinsic value diminish in any way if, say, they lose an arm or a leg?

T: No, of course not.

R: How about an eye?

T: No, of course not.

R: Both eyes?

T: A person's intrinsic value is not diminished no matter how many body parts they lose. That we are created in God's image does not mean that we are physically like God, it means that we are spiritually like God, that we are capable of love...

R: What if they lose their heart?

T: I assume you don't mean that in the poetic sense.

R: No, I mean it literally. Does a person with an artificial heart have any less intrinsic value than someone with a biological heart?

T: The idea that love is resident in the heart is just a fanciful metaphor. The heart is just a pump, and losing it no more diminishes a person's intrinsic value than losing a limb, or even a fingernail.

R: For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure most atheists would agree with that. Now for the last question: what if someone loses their brain? Imagine, say, a drowning victim who is rescued, but not before their brain has been deprived of oxygen. Their body is revived. They are breathing. Their heart is pumping. But there is no detectable activity in their brain, and all medical indications are that it has been damaged beyond repair. They are "brain-dead." Is this person's intrinsic value diminished?

T: That is a very difficult question.

R: Indeed, and I actually don't need you to answer it. But let me give you another example which might make it easer to reach a conclusion. This is a true story. There once was a woman named Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951 from cervical cancer. But before she died some of her cancer cells were cultured, and the descendants of those cells are still alive. They are human cells. They have a full complement of human DNA (specifically, Henrietta's DNA). But I trust you would agree that those cells do not have the same intrinsic value as an intact human being.

T: This is getting quite morbid.

R: I'm sorry about that, but I don't know of a gentler way to make this point. Henrietta's cancer cells are alive. They are life. Moreoever, they are human life. But I think you would be very hard-pressed to find a lot of people who believe that they have the intrinsic value of a person. So there is something wrong with the slogan, "All human life is sacred."

T: I think that slogan means, "All human beings are sacred."

R: Exactly. Or to put it another way, all persons are sacred, or have intrinsic value, or whatever you want to call it. But that raises the question: what makes a person? And I submit to you that what makes a person is not necessarily that they were created in the image of God. There is an alternative, principled scientific account of what makes a person special, namely, that they have a functioning brain. Our DNA makes us human but it is our brains that make us people.

T: I still don't see what this has to do with the idea that "information" is what gives life transcendent meaning.

R: That's understandable. I'm not using the term in it usual everyday sense. I don't mean that, for example, the information you find in, say, a phone book gives life meaning. I mean it in a much broader and technical sense, in the way that computer scientists or mathematicians mean it. I mean it in the sense in which it answers the question: what makes brains special? And the answer to that question is: brains are special because of their capacity to process information.

T: I think that is quite possibly the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

R: Really? Why?

T: Well, for starters, computers process information too. Does that mean that computers should be considered human? Even DNA contains information. By that argument, Henrietta Lacks's cancer cells should be considered human. No, I'm afraid you've gone completely off the rails here. The reason brains are special is because they are the conduit to the human soul, and it is the soul that makes humans special, not brains per se.

R: It is true that computers (and DNA) process information. But you have made a basic logical fallacy. Brains are special because they process information. It does not follow that everything that processes information is special the way brains are. This is called the converse accident fallacy. Human brains are special because they can process information in ways that no computer can (yet). Also, I should point out that you are using the term "human" where you should be using the term "person." It is the soul (or brains) that makes people special. It is an important distinction.

T: Why?

R: Two reasons. First, sloppy thinking about humans vs people leads you to all kinds of ethical conundrums, like whether or not Henrietta Lacks's cancer cells should be accorded human rights. If you distinguish the concept of "person" from the concept of "human" those kinds of dilemmas simply evaporate because everyone can agree that while Henrietta's cells might be human, they are most assuredly not a person. And second, it leaves one open to the possibility of some day encountering a person who is not human.

T: Wasn't it you who was making disparaging comments about Bigfoot earlier in the conversation?

R: I'm not talking about Bigfoot. I'm talking about the possibility of encountering intelligent life on other planets, or even creating artificial intelligence here on this planet. Suppose you met an intelligent alien, would you accord it "human" rights? From a religious point of view this would be quite a sticky issue, but from the information-centric point of view it would not. An intelligent alien would be a person by virtue of its having a brain (or something equivalent that was the seat of its intelligence). As far as we know at this point, all persons are human. But it won't necessarily always be so.

T: Your reasoning is circular. You've used the information-processing capabilities of human brains to define the threshold necessary to be considered a person, and then used that definition to conclude that humans have intrinsic value. You could just as easily have skipped a step and just said that humans have intrinsic value to begin with.

R: It's not circular because information (and information-processing capability) can be objectively defined independently of humans. And using this human-independent definition it is quite clear that human brains are special. Human brains can do things that nothing else in the known universe can do. They can talk (and listen). They can laugh. They can imagine. Those are quite amazing feats.

T: More evidence of God's design.

R: Or the complexity that evolution guided by natural selection is capable of producing. The point is (and this is important) we don't have to agree on how human brains got to be the way they are in order to agree that human brains are special. Furthermore, we can also agree that human brains are special at least in part because of what they do, and not because of how they came to be.

T: I'm still waiting for you to get to the part about transcendent meaning.

R: Once you accept that brains are special because of what they do that leads you inexorably towards many of the same moral and metaphysical conclusions that religion does. "Human rights" (which should properly be called "person's rights") for example, follow directly from the proposition that brains are special. People have rights because people have brains and brains are special. Killing a person is wrong because by killing a person you destroy his brain and that's bad because brains are special.

And it's not the brain per se, it's really the information stored inside that brain that's the really valuable commodity, because that is what makes us who we are. So Alzheimer's is bad because it destroys the information in a brain while leaving the brain itself (and the body that contains it) intact. You can derive other moral principles from this as well. For example, true information (usually) has more value than false information, which is why lying is (usually) bad.

The point is, you don't have to believe in God or a soul to reach (nearly) all of the same conclusions about life and its value and its purpose as religious people do. All you have to believe in is the specialness of brains. And that is a much easier thing to get people to agree on.

T: Well, I can't say I can find any overt flaw in your reasoning, but I can't say it makes me feel very warm and fuzzy. The idea that I am a child of God gives me much more comfort than the proposition that "I am my brain."

R: But that's actually part of the beauty of science. It doesn't demand faith. Science works whether you believe in it or not. That's another reason why science, not religion, is a much better basis for reconciling the rift between science and religion than religion is. Religion only works for believers. Science works for everyone.

T: Saying that science is right is not exactly what I'd call reconciliation.

R: I didn't say that science is right. I said it was a better basis for reconciliation in part because it does not demand faith. To serve this purpose it doesn't really matter whether or not it is right, all that matters is that everyone agree. And I submit to you that it's going to be a lot easier to get people to agree to the principle that brains are special than to agree to Christianity. In fact, it's probably not much harder to get people to believe in the specialness of brains than it is to agree to the existence of basketballs. Furthermore, the essential elements of the Scientific (note the capital S) teleology are completely compatible with many religious beliefs. You can be a Christian and still accept the proposition that brains are special as a foundation for morality.

T: Say, what happened to that basketball anyway? It doesn't seem to be around here any more.

R: Never mind that now. I think we've done a good day's work here, and I'm famished. Shall we adjourn and grab a bite to eat?

T: Sounds good to me. I know a great little Mexican place around the corner.

R: Hm, beans give me gas. How about Sushi?

T: Never touch the stuff. Italian? There's a place down the street that makes a great osso bucco.

R: I don't eat veal ever since I learned how it is made. Tell you what. How about we just grab a sandwich and go sit under a tree?

T: Sounds good to me.

R: Well, at least we agree on that.

T: It's a start.

---

Postscript: I sent a draft (very nearly identical with the version above) of this essay to Tim Keller (the real one). This is how he responded (via his assistant):


Dear Ron,
Tim looked the dialog over, and he doubts he would have responded to your questions the way you have him responding. He thinks that the imagined dialog would be misleading if it supposed to represent what he would say if he was actually asked that series of queries. He adds that he doesn't think he knows anyone well enough to be sure he could imagine how he or she would actually respond to a long set of real-time questions like that.

Tim is sorry he doesn't have the time to respond to the questions himself. He appreciates your effort and your willingness to show it to him.

Thanks so much.


And then a little while later I got this:


Ron,
One more thought from Tim...
since he doesn't believe he would answer these questions in this way, it wouldn't be right to post this as if he had said these things, since he hasn't and he wouldn't. Thanks, Ron.


To which I responded as follows:


[The "real" Tim Keller (T2) bursts into the room.]

T2: Who is this imposter?

T1: Hello, my name is Tim Keller. Who are you?

T2: You're not Tim Keller, *I'm* Tim Keller.

T1: Why, so you are. I am Tim Keller as imagined by Ron Garret. But it's very good of you to join us. Shall I bow out now?

T2: No, I have a bone to pick with you.

Ron: You shouldn't blame him. I'm really the one you should be angry with. He didn't really have a choice in the matter.

[T2 regards T1 with a quizzical scowl.]

T2: Nothing he's said has been what I would have said. He doesn't even look like me. His nose is all wrong.

R: I'm sorry, I did the best I could under the circumstances. All I had to work with was your picture on Google Video, and the image quality is not the best. But perhaps you'd like to take this opportunity to set the record straight?

T2: No, I'm sorry, I don't have time for that. I'm a very busy man.

R: Then what is it you expect me to do?

T2: Dispose of him.

T1: I'm not sure I like the sound of that.

R: You want me to kill him?

T2: No, I don't want you to kill him. Don't be ridiculous. You can't kill him. He isn't real.

R: Well, despite the fact that he isn't real, I've grown rather fond of him, and I would prefer to keep him around.

T1: Why, thank you!

T2: I don't think that's right.

R: Why not?

T1: Because he doesn't answer questions the way I would, and so it is disingenuous of you to present him as if he were me.

R: Well, *of course* he doesn't answer questions the way you would. He's just a figment of my imagination.

T1: Excuse me, but would you please stop talking about me as if I weren't in the room?

R: Sorry. OK, look, I'll make him go away.

[T1 vanishes in a puff of smoke.]

R: Are you happy now?

T2: No. I want you to expunge all memory of him. I want you to make it as if he never existed. I don't want anyone to ever know about him.

R: You want me to disown my creation?

T2: Yes.

R: And why should I do that?

T2: Because you present him as if he were me, and he isn't.

R: Are you saying that the positions he takes are not your positions?

T2: Yes.

R: Can you be specific? I really tried very hard to represent your views accurately. I can cite you chapter and verse (so to speak) to show that every position he took is supported by something you wrote in your book. Can you tell me where I got it wrong?

T2: No, sorry, I'm a very busy man. No time for that.

R: Well, I'm afraid that leaves me in a very difficult position. And I'm disappointed too. I would have thought you would appreciate this rhetorical device I've chosen, particularly since it was actually your idea.

T2: What? That's ridiculous. I never suggested that you write me into a dialog.

R: That's true, but you did come up with the metaphor of God writing himself into the script. It's in one of the later chapters of your book. (That idea was not original with you, by the way. Douglas Hoftstadter used the same device back in the 70's, and for all I know it goes back further than that.) I had hoped you'd see the dialog format as a small homage, not as an insult.

T2: Hmmm....

[Suddenly the *real* real Tim Keller (T3) bursts into the room.]

T3: What's going on here? Who is this? He looks familiar.

R: Ah, Rev. Keller, good of you to join us. Won't you sit down?

I leave it to you to write the next line.

---

To date, Tim Keller has not responded.

28 comments:

Snoop Baron said...

Brilliant I loved it :) Thanks for sharing!

Ron said...

Thanks!

mar13 said...

Actually there are a way which make your T1 closer to the real Keller but I am afraid it would be quite an undertaking: subscribe and listen to all Keller's sermon, read everything he wrote (not books, but articles, newsletter, plus comments/interactions he has with people on the web), and interact with people who know him in person, etc... Then you would get him enough to represent Him fairly (like how Keller represents CS Lewis and Jonathan Edwards).

As Keller's fan, I can tell you that sure he would not respond the way T1 did. But T1 is closer to the real Keller than T2 (and he wouldn't call your theory on information "ridiculous").

Your argument is very fine too. I agree with more that what you think, but of course it won't tip the scale for me jsut like the book couldn't tip the scale for you.

But I wish that people from the faith and and secular can actually dialogue like wise without much hostility.

Ron said...

> Actually there are a way which make your T1 closer to the real Keller but I am afraid it would be quite an undertaking

Indeed, and I don't have time for that. (Yes, I am aware of the irony here.) But the point of the piece was to challenge Tim Keller, not to channel him.

> and he wouldn't call your theory on information "ridiculous"

Yes, I admit putting that line in Keller's mouth was a little unfair, though I do believe that he would agree with the sentiment of the line even if he would have found a more diplomatic way of phrasing it. The reason I wrote it as I did was that I was anticipating that reaction from a segment of the target audience, and I was hoping that having T1 respond that way would help to draw in the people who were thinking that line to themselves. The piece was already getting too long, and I didn't really want to start getting into the details of the teleology of informatics.

>Your argument is very fine too.

Thank you.

> I agree with more that what you think, but of course it won't tip the scale for me just like the book couldn't tip the scale for you.

Which scale won't it tip? I know that this essay won't convince any believer that their belief is wrong. That was not its purpose. I was only trying to convince believers that unbelief is *reasonable* (or at least not unreasonable) -- and vice versa by the way, but that's another essay. Hm, maybe I should actually write that essay. Then *everyone* will be pissed off at me. :-)

mar13 said...

Ron,

Uumm, I would probably be no match for your reasoning prowess (or anyone who could challenge the pro at their tuff).

But let’s consider the practicality of life here. A kid who is now living with me suffers from severe Cerebral Palsy a few months after he was born (see video here: http://video.xanga.com/I12Know/7f390470318/video.html ). Our Doctor said that he would be that way (he has a 1 month-old brain capability, and won’t be able to sit, to see, or to talk, or to know anything for the remaining of his life). And the situation will only get deteriorate worse, not better. There is no cure for this.

You probably have already known the usual approaches for a believer to comfort another in hard times like this. I sincerely want to know from your vantage point, how would you counsel a fellow human on this. The kid clearly has no information processing power. From your “theology of unbelief”, how should we handle this aspect of real life?

Thanks for the dialog – please note that I am not working with a hypothesis. This is the reality of my life. What resources from your side of the fence would help people like me here and now in this matter (besides the obvious waiting for the progress for brain transplant)?

Thanks.

PS: I discovered Keller when this tragedy first happened, and through the spiritual resources he used to help his congregants during Sep.11 (and other similar stuff), I "tipped" more to his side of the scale. Faith is not just the intellectual reasonings alone, but other aspects as well.

I agree with you that unbelief is *reasonable* as well, and vice versa. That's why we have free-will, right?

wrf3 said...

mar13 wrote: I agree with you that unbelief is *reasonable* as well, and vice versa. That's why we have free-will, right?

I see that T also brings in free-will. FWIW, a Calvinist, and many Lutherans, would argue that, regarding belief, man does not have free will.

R observed: You cannot prove a negative. That's not absolutely true. Wiles, after all, finally managed to prove Fermat's last theorem, which is a very famous negative. Whether or not God is in this class is, of course, a much more interesting problem. Little consideration is usually given to the problem of finding something that a) controls the very reality we inhabit and b) is an active agent, quite capable of eluding detection.

R said: OK, work with me here. Suspend your disbelief for a moment (have a little faith?) Just a pet peeve, if I may. Faith is not holding something to be true without evidence. If T is to truly have faith, there has to be a warrant for it.

R noted: I have always found it odd that a supposedly all-powerful God can be rendered impotent by man's obstinance (or imperfections).

He isn't. Believe me, He isn't.

T said: it is simply impossible ... to receive Grace without believing that it is real.

That's exactly backwards. It is God's Grace that results in belief. Among many, many Bible passages, this is a direct consequence of "Unless a man be born again/from above he cannot see the kingdom of God." A recent exposition on this, here,

R: But the problem is that the nature of God's love is not so clear.

"But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." [Rom 5:8]

R: so God still doesn't seem to be doing a very good job of getting through, at least not to me.

And that's the problem in all of its clarity and all of its simplicity. You don't get to judge God's efforts. Whether He brings you to faith instantly, or over a period of years, or not at all -- you don't get to judge Him. In my case, it took years. Do I wish I had become a Christian sooner? Absolutely. Was God wrong in His timing? Absolutely not.

T: God is not going to force himself on you. You have to let him in.

Complete nonsense (it's obvious that T is of the Arminian persuasion). Read the passage on Lazarus (John, chapter 11). When God says "Live!" the dead come alive. There's no force because the dead offer no resistance to God.

R: I would like nothing better. Truly, if God is real, I want to know.

That's the most dangerous prayer there is. If I may conflate two Bible passages: "it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God ... for our God is a consuming fire." (Heb 10:31, Heb 12:29)

I could easily go on. A full dissection of this would take me hours, if not days. A more complete examination of the evidence of the Resurrection is a book in itself.

wrf3 said...

Ron, I hope you don't mind a P.S. If you have a spare hour and a half you might find C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce interesting. It relates to the "problem" of finding God.

Ron said...

> The kid clearly has no information processing power.

Not true at all. I remember very clearly the first time I met someone with cerebral palsy. I was very intimidated until someone explained to me that they were perfectly normal in every respect except that they didn't have control of their muscles. People really need to be made more aware of this. People with CP can think just as well as any ordinary person. (Well, that's not quite true. There are learning disabilities associated with CP. But no one would argue that a person with CP is not a person.)

But I am not a strident atheist. I have no quarrel with people who find strength in faith. The only quarrel I have is with people who insist that *I* have to find *my* strength in *their* faith. (And I have a particular quarrel with people who say that this is the way to resolve the conflict between faith and secularism.) If Jesus works for you, I say more power to you.

> a Calvinist, and many Lutherans, would argue that, regarding belief, man does not have free will.

Yes, that's true, and I was actually aware of this. I plead guilty to mixing and matching Christian theologies. (That's one of the problems with responding to Christian theologies -- there are just so darned many of them.) In my defense I can only say that Keller seems to check his Calvanism at the door in the arguments he makes in "The Reason for God" so it wasn't in the forefront of my consciousness when I was composing the essay.

I've always wondered, though, what role "faith" plays in Calvanist theology. No Calvanist has ever been able to explain this to me. Faith without free-will seems to me to be self-defeating, kind of like trying to get someone else to explain solipsism to you.

> You don't get to judge God's efforts.

Why not? If God is almighty and chooses to create me and then condemn me to eternal torment without giving me any say in the matter then why should I not use the power of my intellect to conclude that God is a sadistic bastard and call him on it?

> T: God is not going to force himself on you. You have to let him in.
> Complete nonsense

I agree, but surely not for the same reasons. :-) It is true that this is not the Calvanist position. But when I was growing up in Tennessee I had this idea drilled into my head again and again by all the Southern Baptists around me.

mar13 said...

Hi Ron,

There are a wide spectrum of CP. Our David is one of the more servere case due to his brain damage from a skull fracture.

Please do not taking my response and case as a challenge to your belief and world view system.

Thanks for not being a "strident atheist", I am not a "strident Christian" either. I have no interest in coerce you into faith at all. I simply want to converse and to learn how would you approach an issue in life from the angle of your belief system. How would you find strength in these kinds of life problem?

Please pardon my morbid thought, (and trust me, this is way more painful for me to bring up than yours) but if human dignity is bound up in our information processing, then there is every little reason to keep David existence, except for medical research purposes. Right?

wrf3 said...

Ron: I plead guilty to mixing and matching Christian theologies. (That's one of the problems with responding to Christian theologies -- there are just so darned many of them.)

This was touched on in the main post, too, and is one of the many things I skipped over. Surely this isn't a defect of Christianity, is it? My first acquaintance with you was through your association with Lisp. An elegant language that I've come to love; but I've seen you, Tilton, Costanza, Pittman, et. al. go at each other. ;-) Or how about the American Constitution? Why is it so hard for us to agree on something simple like the 2nd Amendment?

In any case, we agree that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. That's enough. I've been at this for almost 30 years now (I'm past 50); I started out Arminian (though I didn't even know the term) and have switched to Calvinism; I started out a dispensational premillennialist and have set that aside for (mostly) amillennialism. It's a complex body of knowledge. {Maybe I should chime in on the literal/non-literal issue and 'how do you know'?}

R: In my defense I can only say that Keller seems to check his Calvanism at the door in the arguments he makes in "The Reason for God" so it wasn't in the forefront of my consciousness when I was composing the essay. No need to defend yourself; but if you're going to look for reasons for avoiding Christianity, you owe it to yourself to make sure they're the right reasons. You're a smart guy and you don't strike me as someone who would enjoy defeating straw.

R: But when I was growing up in Tennessee I had this idea drilled into my head again and again by all the Southern Baptists around me.

I had to outgrow them, too. SBs are funny creatures; a hodge-podge of conflicting theological systems (but, then again, aren't most people that way? How many people, after all, live what is called 'the examined life'?) I once heard a Baptist preacher, who claimed to be Trinitarian, give an example of God that was straight Modalism. His heart was in the right place. I'm sure I'll say something stupid in the Lisp newsgroup, if I haven't already. I hope I won't have to turn in my Lisp card for being wrong about something.

More later. I'll answer your question about faith and Calvinism and deal with the issue of judging God. But I do have to get to work...

Ron said...

> There are a wide spectrum of CP. Our David is one of the more servere case due to his brain damage from a skull fracture.

I am very sorry.

> Please do not taking my response and case as a challenge to your belief and world view system. How would you find strength in these kinds of life problem?

I don't take it as a challenge. It's a perfectly fair question, but to answer it will take more time than I have right now. I'll try to get to it later today.

Ron said...

> Surely this isn't a defect of Christianity, is it?

"Defect" is not the word I would choose. It's certainly a source of confusion, which seems to me to be a "problem" even if it isn't a "defect".

> Jesus died for our sins and rose again. That's enough.

That would be great if all Christians could agree that that's enough, but not all Christians do. In particular, some Christians believe that to reap the benefits of Jesus's sacrifice you have to *believe* in him. If that's true then that's a problem. In fact, for me and many others, it's a show-stopper.

wrf3 said...

I really am going to disappear until later this evening. Really. I do have work to do...

R: "Defect" is not the word I would choose. It's certainly a source of confusion, which seems to me to be a "problem" even if it isn't a "defect".

A problem with what? Christianity, or people? The more I read Jesus and St. Paul, the more convinced I become that Christianity is far, far more radical than even most Christians realize. In any case, I think I understand where you're coming from: if Christianity is true, and God changes people, then why does He allow such confusion among His people? I have two answers; I don't know if you'll find them satisfactory.

wrf3: Jesus died for our sins and rose again. That's enough.

R: That would be great if all Christians could agree that that's enough, but not all Christians do.

Oh, I know. But there is the equivalent of CLTL2 that says otherwise.

In particular, some Christians believe that to reap the benefits of Jesus's sacrifice you have to *believe* in him.

And those same Christians would also say, very loudly in fact, that salvation is by grace. Have they thought this through? Belief cannot be the cause of grace, otherwise grace isn't grace.

If that's true then that's a problem. In fact, for me and many others, it's a show-stopper.

I know. It was for me, too. But this actually ties in the with the problem with judging God and faith in the Calvinist system. Later...

Ron said...

> A problem with what?

With Christianity as a solution to the problem of the societal rift between faith and secularism.

> if Christianity is true, and God changes people, then why does He allow such confusion among His people?

Exactly. I can't wait to hear your answers.

> But there is the equivalent of CLTL2 that says otherwise.

You mean this? Or maybe this? Or perhaps this?

> And those same Christians would also say, very loudly in fact, that salvation is by grace. Have they thought this through? Belief cannot be the cause of grace, otherwise grace isn't grace.

Well, the SB position as I understand it is that faith is necessary to receive grace. It seems to me to be at least as defensible a position as Calvanistic determinism, particularly since Jesus says so himself.

wrf3 said...

R [There is a problem] with Christianity as a solution to the problem of the societal rift between faith and secularism.

I'm going to skip this, if I may, as it's yet another long treatise. If not, let me know, and I'll try to find time this weekend to jot some things down.

[wrf3] if Christianity is true, and God changes people, then why does He allow such confusion among His people?

R: Exactly. I can't wait to hear your answers.

There are at least three things I can think of.
First, as a parent, I sometimes allow confusion among my children. The struggle for understanding is a part of the growing process.
Second, knowledge is important and God commands the acquisition of knowledge. But knowledge is not more important than love. We are constantly faced with the lesson that we are to love others, regardless of their faults, real or perceived. As St. Paul observed, "Knowledge puffs up but love builds up."
Third, if God immediately changed us so that we were in our final state now, then people would convert for the benefits. It would be like marrying a woman for her body and not for her. It's the same way with God. It has to be a relationship based on love and trust, not what someone might get out of it. That's one reason why Christianity's symbol is a symbol of death. You will have to take up a cross. Crazy, aren't we?

[wrf3] But there is the equivalent of CLTL2 that says otherwise [that the message of the Gospel is sufficient].

R You mean this? [Book of Mormon] Or maybe this? [Quran] Or perhaps this? [Dianetics]

I've read all of the first two [and the rest of the Mormon writings] and a lot of Dianetics.

I remember when William Shatner had his first Tek War novel published. As I read it, I was struck by the realization that Shatner didn't write it, Ron Goulart did. Similarly, when I read Robinson's "Variable Star", while it may have been an idea of Heinlein's, it wasn't his voice.

The point of my rambling is that having read the Bible and compared them to these other writings, it's clear to me that they aren't from the same Author. As I said earlier, Christianity is far, far more radical than most Christians understand.

[wrf3] And those same Christians would also say, very loudly in fact, that salvation is by grace. Have they thought this through? Belief cannot be the cause of grace, otherwise grace isn't grace.

R: Well, the SB position as I understand it is that faith is necessary to receive grace. It seems to me to be at least as defensible a position as Calvanistic determinism, particularly since Jesus says so himself.

The verse you cited says, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath"

What that verse doesn't say is what the source of that belief is. The Calvinist would also say, "whoever has eternal life believes", consistent with the principle that salvation is by grace: that both faith and life are given by God. The Arminian disagrees, saying that belief results in grace. But that turns grace on its head.

Continuing with earlier topics...

R: I've always wondered, though, what role "faith" plays in Calvanist theology. No Calvanist has ever been able to explain this to me. Faith without free-will seems to me to be self-defeating, kind of like trying to get someone else to explain solipsism to you.

I guess I don't understand why you see faith without free-will as being a problem. Nevertheless, faith is what allows me to go through life knowing that what happens is for a purpose. It means that there are things I simply don't have to worry about. One of the interesting things that has happened to me since I became a Christian is that when something happens that I don't initially like, God always ends up using it in ways where I end up going, "Oh, that's why!"

[wrf3] You don't get to judge God's efforts.

R: Why not? If God is almighty and chooses to create me and then condemn me to eternal torment without giving me any say in the matter then why should I not use the power of my intellect to conclude that God is a sadistic bastard and call him on it?

[If you're interested, St. Paul deals with this very topic in Romans 9, which is one of the most hotly contested chapters in all Scripture.]

Perhaps more accessible, C. S. Lewis made the observation that there are only two types of people in this world. Those who, at the end of all things, say to God, "Thy will be done"; and those who say, "My will be done." By choosing to "call him on it", you show that you are in the latter camp. Whether we like it or not, He is God, the final, ultimate, authority to which every knee will bow.

Battlestar is on in twenty minutes. As much fun as this is, it has been a long week and I'm going to go veg out. Later.

Ron said...

> I'm going to skip this, if I may, as it's yet another long treatise. If not, let me know

LOL! You are, of course, free to do as you wish.

> First, as a parent, I sometimes allow confusion among my children. The struggle for understanding is a part of the growing process.

I'm glad you weren't my parent.

> Second, knowledge is important and God commands the acquisition of knowledge. But knowledge is not more important than love.

They are not mutually exclusive IMHO.

> Third, if God immediately changed us so that we were in our final state now, then people would convert for the benefits. It would be like marrying a woman for her body and not for her. It's the same way with God. It has to be a relationship based on love and trust, not what someone might get out of it. That's one reason why Christianity's symbol is a symbol of death. You will have to take up a cross. Crazy, aren't we?

Yep. I'm afraid I didn't understand that at all (which seems to be par for the course when I start to delve deeply into Christian theology).

> The Calvinist would also say, "whoever has eternal life believes"

Yes, but the Calvanist would be at odds with what Jesus said. In English, the phrase "He who does X has Y" means that doing X causes having Y, not the other way around, e.g. "He who wins the lottery gets a lot of money" versus "He who gets a lot of money wins the lottery."

> I guess I don't understand why you see faith without free-will as being a problem.

Did you read the Raymond Smullyan essay? (The pointer is in the post above.)

> St. Paul deals with this very topic in Romans 9

St. Paul's answer (as I read it) is: you should not call God on it because God is one bad motherfucker and you Just Don't Do That. Sorry, I don't buy it. As far as I'm concerned, creation comes with certain moral responsibilities that even God cannot shirk. See http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~marinaj/babyloni.htm

> Whether we like it or not, He is God, the final, ultimate, authority to which every knee will bow.

You make God sound like a Mafia don.

> Battlestar is on in twenty minutes.

Glad to see you've got your priorities straight. Enjoy your show!

wrf3 said...

[wrf3] First, as a parent, I sometimes allow confusion among my children. The struggle for understanding is a part of the growing process.

R: I'm glad you weren't my parent.
My children aren't displeased with me. Today we celebrated my second son's graduation Magna Cum Laude from Gegoria Tech with a Bachelor's in Mechanical Engineering. He'll be going on to the University of Illinois for his PhD.

But perhaps you misunderstood me. Please don't think that I let them stay confused. But it's important that they learn how to learn.

[wrf3] ... That's one reason why Christianity's symbol is a symbol of death. You will have to take up a cross. Crazy, aren't we?

R: Yep. I'm afraid I didn't understand that at all (which seems to be par for the course when I start to delve deeply into Christian theology).

I snipped all but the end of what you responded to, not knowing which part caused the greatest confusion. Let me know and I'll see if I can't come up with something more helpful.

[wrf3] The Calvinist would also say, "whoever has eternal life believes"

R: Yes, but the Calvanist would be at odds with what Jesus said. In English, the phrase "He who does X has Y" means that doing X causes having Y, not the other way around, e.g. "He who wins the lottery gets a lot of money" versus "He who gets a lot of money wins the lottery."

I don't agree with the a lottery and money as being the right analogy to belief and eternal life. A lottery and money are disjoint, you can have one without the other. But belief and eternal life are intertwined; you can't have one without the other.

[wrf3] I guess I don't understand why you see faith without free-will as being a problem.

R: Did you read the Raymond Smullyan essay? (The pointer is in the post above.)

I read it this afternoon. There are a number of serious problems with it, vis-a-vis the Christian worldview. For example, Mortal's statement: "So without free will, we could not earn the right to eternal life." No one earns eternal life. It is not granted as a reward for right behavior (for some definition of "right"). And God's statement, "... without free will you cannot sin." is also problematic. Too, Smullyan isn't clear about his view of the universe. The statement, "You and natural law are really one and the same." belies a sort of pantheism, whereas Christianity's God is transcendent. So I don't think his model of reality is correct.

[wrf3] St. Paul deals with this very topic in Romans 9

R: St. Paul's answer (as I read it) is: you should not call God on it because God is one bad motherfucker and you Just Don't Do That.

This is going to get very deep, very quickly. What makes someone morally right? Is God morally right because he is "one bad motherfucker", or is there some other reason?

Sorry, I don't buy it. As far as I'm concerned, creation comes with certain moral responsibilities that even God cannot shirk. See http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~marinaj/babyloni.htm

That's simply yet another way of expressing the notion of "man as God". The reality of the situation is, if God holds the opposite view, then man is wrong.

[wrf3] Whether we like it or not, He is God, the final, ultimate, authority to which every knee will bow.

You make God sound like a Mafia don.

Those who hold "my will be done" generally come to that way of expression. Those who hold "Thy will be done" see it otherwise, "You alone are worthy!"

There is no absolute morality; no "yardstick" that measures both man and God. Morality is purely subjective. So the problem becomes: when two personal opinions are in conflict, which one takes the "privileged" position, and why? The conundrum is that judging between two moral positions is itself a moral judgement. To make a long discussion short, God is right because He is the only self-existent being.

Ron said...

> What makes someone morally right?

Too long to answer in a comment. I'll write a separate post about that soon.

> Is God morally right because he is "one bad motherfucker", or is there some other reason?

That's not a fair question to pose to someone who doesn't believe in God :-) I'll just make the observation that if we don't have free will then there's no point in even asking the question because then everything that happens is God's will since he's the one pulling all the strings. (The Bible, I note in passing, does support that point of view, e.g. Isaiah 45:7.)

> Morality is purely subjective

No, it isn't. For example, cannibalism is universally condemned as immoral in nearly all human societies. The level of consensus on the issue of cannibalism is comparable to the level of consensus on the existence of basketballs. And yet the Bible does not condemn cannibalism as a sin. Contrariwise, evolutionary theory explains this quite nicely. I allude to all this at the of the dialog, but I really should expand on it. Stay tuned.

wrf3 said...

[wrf3] What makes someone morally right?

R Too long to answer in a comment. I'll write a separate post about that soon.
I agree that it's too long to answer in a comment. I've barely started on my own blog but haven't had time to work on it, lately.

[wrf3] Is God morally right because he is "one bad motherfucker", or is there some other reason?

R: That's not a fair question to pose to someone who doesn't believe in God :-)
Actually, it might be. As software engineers, you and I know that things tend to fail at their boundaries. This is just as true of philosophy as it is with software. So throwing God into the picture, even if hypothetically, might be an excellent stress test of whatever explanation you come up with.

I'll just make the observation that if we don't have free will then there's no point in even asking the question because then everything that happens is God's will since he's the one pulling all the strings. (The Bible, I note in passing, does support that point of view, e.g. Isaiah 45:7.)
Why is it an unbeliever seems to have less trouble with this passage than many believers I've come across?

In any case, the resolution to this depends on the underlying (and usually unstated) view of reality. Just suppose that God is an Author and we are characters in His story. In almost every story there are good and bad creations, all created by the same author, all responsible for their actions.

[wrf3] Morality is purely subjective

No, it isn't.

Here are three (out of many) famous thinkers who disagree with you:

"We shall find beauty in the final laws of nature, [but] we will find no special status for life or intelligence. A fortiori, we will find no standards of value or morality". -- Steven Weinberg

In his essay entitled Nonmoral Nature, Stephen Gould uses naturalistic observation to argue against the universality of human morality. He examines the debate from all sides and concludes that such concepts cannot realistically apply to nature as it does to man. However, if one examines the works of Charles Darwin, the discrepancies between man and nature begin to disappear. This view suggests that morality is a purely social construct. Proof of such a hypothesis is prevalent in many sources, such as literature or recent history. Following this logic, one must conclude that concepts of good and evil are altogether arbitrary, subjective, and unnatural. http://projectparadox.f2o.org/thoughts/papers/good-versus-evil-the-great-debate.php

The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote did God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. -- Jean Paul Sarte

For example, cannibalism is universally condemned as immoral in nearly all human societies. The level of consensus on the issue of cannibalism is comparable to the level of consensus on the existence of basketballs.

In the time span of human history, cannibalism has been practiced more often than not. Just because you live in a time where it's out of vogue doesn't mean that a future society won't embrace it.

The once unthinkable becomes the norm all the time. How soon before Niven's future comes true, for example, where criminals are harvested for their organs? When will the Christian ethic of the sanctity of all human life fade only to have "survival of the fittest" take it's place?

And yet the Bible does not condemn cannibalism as a sin. Contrariwise, evolutionary theory explains this quite nicely. I allude to all this at the of the dialog, but I really should expand on it. Stay tuned.
Eagerly waiting for the e-mail notification of a new post.

Ron said...

> Why is it an unbeliever seems to have less trouble with this passage than many believers I've come across?

Because we unbelievers are not hobbled by the preconception that God is good, so the fact that God proclaims himself to be the author of evil causes us no cognitive dissonance. (To the contrary, it seems entirely consistent with God's character. To me, the God of Abraham seems more like the trickster than any other archetype.)

> In almost every story there are good and bad creations, all created by the same author, all responsible for their actions.

But characters in stories are not responsible for their actions because characters in stories are not real. The idea of God as author is a nice metaphor, but one shouldn't lean on metaphor too hard or they break.

> Here are three (out of many) famous thinkers who disagree with you:

They are all wrong :-)

> In the time span of human history, cannibalism has been practiced more often than not. Just because you live in a time where it's out of vogue doesn't mean that a future society won't embrace it.

Actually, there are good reasons to believe this won't happen. Did you read the article I linked to?

wrf3 said...

[wrf3] Why is it an unbeliever seems to have less trouble with this passage [Isa 45:7] than many believers I've come across?

R: Because we unbelievers are not hobbled by the preconception that God is good, so the fact that God proclaims himself to be the author of evil causes us no cognitive dissonance.

If you're really going to deal with this topic, instead of throwing off ad-hoc explanations such as preconceptions about the nature of God, you have to ask hard questions, such as "is it good or evil for God to create evil?" "Is it good or evil for man to create evil?" What is "good", anyway? Can you define it such that the definition isn't circular? "Does might make right or does might enforce right? Does the answer to this depend on whether or not God exists?"

R: (To the contrary, it seems entirely consistent with God's character. To me, the God of Abraham seems more like the trickster than any other archetype.)

Except that Abraham, Moses, and David wouldn't agree with you. But suppose, just for the sake of argument, that He is. That at the end of all things He shows up with a red clown nose, moons us all, and the last thing we hear is His maniacal laughter as we fade away to darkness. What recourse will you have to gainsay Him?

[wrf3] In almost every story there are good and bad creations, all created by the same author, all responsible for their actions.

But characters in stories are not responsible for their actions because characters in stories are not real.

Then why do they get punished? And why do such characters not get to appear in sequels?

The idea of God as author is a nice metaphor, but one shouldn't lean on metaphor too hard or they break.

How do you know it's just a metaphor? Can you prove to me, real observational "scientific" proof, that we aren't living in a simulation?

[wrf3] Here are three (out of many) famous thinkers who disagree with you:

They are all wrong :-)

You're going to have to do better than that, especially if you want your upcoming article on "scientific moralism" to be taken seriously. You're going to have to define "good" and "evil" -- and I'm going to make sure you don't sneak in a circular definition. You're going to have to deal with Hume's argument that "is" does not imply "ought". And you're going to have to deal with how to judge between two competing moral systems, when that judgment itself requires a moral system, ad infinitum.

[wrf3] In the time span of human history, cannibalism has been practiced more often than not. Just because you live in a time where it's out of vogue doesn't mean that a future society won't embrace it.

Actually, there are good reasons to believe this won't happen. Did you read the article I linked to?

There is more slavery in the world today, now, than there was 150 years ago. Pedophilia, once popular in Greek culture [women for babies, boys for fun], is making a comeback.

"If you start with a conclusion you can always imagine a trail that leads to it".

Ron said...

> If you're really going to deal with this topic

That depends on what you mean by "this topic." I am not going to deal with the topic of whether God is good because I have no idea. My personal belief is that God (by which is meant the God of Abraham) does not exist, so asking whether God is good is rather like asking whether Anakin Skywalker is good. That question has to be dealt with by people who believe in Him.

> >But characters in stories are not responsible for their actions because characters in stories are not real.

> Then why do they get punished?

Because they don't do as well at the box office otherwise. And no, that is not a glib answer. I am dead serious. Fiction serves a very real and important purpose in human lives. That purpose is undermined if the bad guy gets away.

> And why do such characters not get to appear in sequels?

But they do. Hannibal Lecter. Freddy Kreuger. There are whole franchises built around bad guys who keep coming back from the dead.

> Except that Abraham, Moses, and David wouldn't agree with you.

Actually, it's not at all clear to me that Moses and I would not see eye-to-eye on this issue. I think Moses would agree that at the very least, God can be a sonofabitch sometimes. (But speculating over what Moses thinks of God seem to me akin to speculating over what Lucius Malfoy thinks of Tom Riddle.)

> How do you know it's just a metaphor? Can you prove to me, real observational "scientific" proof, that we aren't living in a simulation?

Funny you should ask. In point of fact, there is very good reason to believe that we *are* living in a simulation!

> What recourse will you have to gainsay Him?

Perhaps I will say "Allahu Akbar!"

> You're going to have to do better than that

Yes, I know. That's why it's taking so long. (That and the fact that I'm on the road, so it's harder to find time to write. But I should have some free time tomorrow.)

> There is more slavery in the world today, now, than there was 150 years ago. Pedophilia, once popular in Greek culture [women for babies, boys for fun], is making a comeback.

It is important to distinguish slavery (and pedophilia) from *institutionalized* slavery. The mere fact that people engage in an activity does not mean that there is no consensus that the activity is morally wrong. Even many pedophiles will concede that pedophilia is morally wrong. There's a lot of murder in the world too. That doesn't mean there is no consensus that murder is wrong.

> "If you start with a conclusion you can always imagine a trail that leads to it".

Indeed. Look at neo-Creationism a.k.a. Intelligent design.

wrf3 said...

[wrf3] If you're really going to deal with this topic

R: That depends on what you mean by "this topic."

The topic of good and evil, aka morality.

I am not going to deal with the topic of whether God is good because I have no idea.

Perhaps that's because you don't have the right definition of "good" and "evil".

My personal belief is that God (by which is meant the God of Abraham) does not exist, so asking whether God is good is rather like asking whether Anakin Skywalker is good.

Actually, it would be rather like asking whether George Lucas is good from Anakin Skywalker's POV, and why. That's an important question to consider.

That question has to be dealt with by people who believe in Him.

It's actually easy to deal with once you get your definitions and axioms properly initialized.

[R] But characters in stories are not responsible for their actions because characters in stories are not real.

[wrf3] Then why do they get punished?

R: Because they don't do as well at the box office otherwise. And no, that is not a glib answer. I am dead serious.

Maybe so, but it is shallow. Not all authors write for the box office. Authors punish characters all the time. Are the authors evil? Are the characters not responsible? If we really are living in a simulation {see below} then you have to deal with these questions.

R: Fiction serves a very real and important purpose in human lives. That purpose is undermined if the bad guy gets away.

So does that remove your objection to the concept of Hell (and, btw, we don't agree on the implementation)?

[wrf3] And why do such characters not get to appear in sequels?

R: But they do. Hannibal Lecter. Freddy Kreuger. There are whole franchises built around bad guys who keep coming back from the dead.
Exception to the rule. In any case, the Author keeps them around as long as they are useful.

[wrf3] How do you know it's just a metaphor? Can you prove to me, real observational "scientific" proof, that we aren't living in a simulation?

R: Funny you should ask. In point of fact, there is very good reason to believe that we *are* living in a simulation!

I know. I've read it. ;-) The key points are: a) are the simulators "good"? b) do you really have free will?

[wrf3] What recourse will you have to gainsay Him?

R: Perhaps I will say "Allahu Akbar!"

To what end?

[wrf3] There is more slavery in the world today, now, than there was 150 years ago. Pedophilia, once popular in Greek culture [women for babies, boys for fun], is making a comeback.

R: It is important to distinguish slavery (and pedophilia) from *institutionalized* slavery. The mere fact that people engage in an activity does not mean that there is no consensus that the activity is morally wrong. Even many pedophiles will concede that pedophilia is morally wrong. There's a lot of murder in the world too. That doesn't mean there is no consensus that murder is wrong.

First, it's a step toward getting the consensus changed. Things that used to be wrong much earlier in my lifetime aren't considered wrong now. People change and, therefore, societies change. Second, since when did "consensus" matter? Surely you're not arguing that numbers make right, are you?

[wrf3] "If you start with a conclusion you can always imagine a trail that leads to it".

R: Indeed. Look at neo-Creationism a.k.a. Intelligent design.
Or evolution, for that matter. As one extremely brilliant man once told me, "It's an amazing string of unjustified conclusions. But it's a wonderful theory."

Ron said...

> Perhaps that's because you don't have the right definition of "good" and "evil".

Nope, that's not it.

> If we really are living in a simulation {see below} then you have to deal with these questions.

No, I don't. Whether or not we are "really" in a simulation is irrelevant.

> Actually, it would be rather like asking whether George Lucas is good from Anakin Skywalker's POV, and why.

Not to me it wouldn't. I do not believe that God created us.

> It's actually easy to deal with once you get your definitions and axioms properly initialized.

Yes. Of course. But I don't. So it isn't.

> So does that remove your objection to the concept of Hell[?]

I have no "objection" to the concept of Hell. I just don't believe Hell exists.

> > Perhaps I will say "Allahu Akbar!"

> To what end?

No idea. When you started talking about God wearing a red clown nose it seemed to me we were so far down the rabbit hole that one response seemed as good as another.

> Surely you're not arguing that numbers make right, are you?

Actually, I am (or I will when I finally get around to finishing this new post). Slavery is a good case in point. The Bible condones slavery, and a lot of other behaviors that we would not consider barbaric (like stoning blasphemers and disobedient children to death).

quantamos said...

Hmm... so now you've taken to arguing with imaginary straw men? :-P

Actually, I have a challenge for you as a computer scientist, skilled in the ways of information processing.

Invent a manageable debating website.

You could call it "wikidebates" etc, and it would be a huge hit once it gets critical mass. The problem, as I see it, is that there are too many subarguments, tangents, interconnections, recursions, rhretoric, circular reasoning, >>'s, rebuttals, etc to each topic of discussion, and people rarely get anywhere. Furthermore, people end up copying and pasting text between different arguments, so a lot of stuff is redundant.

But I imagine a graph. Each node represents an assertion, and has two columns with arguments for and against. This node would also have hyperlinks to all the nodes representing prerequisite assumptions, and has hyperlinks to all subsequent statements. So like wikipedia, I could create nodes and add hyperlinks. Circular reasoning would be obvious.

I don't know... people sort of do this already (e.g. you've hyperlinked other people's arguments in your text) but we the people need a more formalized way of doing this, and your programming skills + debate proclivities make you an ideal initiator. :-)

Ron said...

> Hmm... so now you've taken to arguing with imaginary straw men? :-P

Imaginary, perhaps. Straw, no. Everything any of my Tim Keller's say is defensible in terms of something the real Tim Keller has written. (Even the non-Calvanist doctrines I have him offer are defensible in light of the fact that he prominently and necessarily took his Calvanist hat off to write The Reason for God.)

> Invent a manageable debating website.

Not a bad idea, but very, very hard to get right. (In fact, I'm pretty sure there are such things out there, but I don't think any of them have gotten any traction.) And I don't have all that much free time nowadays.

wrf3 said...

[wrf3] Perhaps that's because you don't have the right definition of "good" and "evil".

R: Nope, that's not it.

I look forward to seeing your definitions. Earlier, you implied that there is an objective external standard of morality. I'm curious to see the flaw in your reasoning.

[wrf3] If we really are living in a simulation {see below} then you have to deal with these questions.

R: No, I don't. Whether or not we are "really" in a simulation is irrelevant.

I can see you already have boundary condition problems. Here, you ignore the "very large" where, if we really are living in a simulation, then morality has to encompass the Simulators.

[wrf3] So does that remove your objection to the concept of Hell[?]

[R] Perhaps I will say "Allahu Akbar!"

[wrf3] To what end?

R: No idea. When you started talking about God wearing a red clown nose it seemed to me we were so far down the rabbit hole that one response seemed as good as another.

There's a method to my madness. It ties in with your formulation of "morality" with regards to the "very large".

[wrf3] Surely you're not arguing that numbers make right, are you?

R: Actually, I am (or I will when I finally get around to finishing this new post).

So, not only do you have a problem with the "very large", you have a problem with the "very small", too. If you're going to argue that numbers make right, you have to show that this is the case when N=2. Suppose that you and I are stranded on a deserted island and we don't agree about the morality of certain decisions that might need to be made. How do we decide?

Furthermore, I'm really interested to see if you believe your own argument. I don't think it would be too hard to find something where the majority of the world doesn't agree with you, yet you think they are wrong. That undercuts your argument.

Slavery is a good case in point. The Bible condones slavery, and a lot of other behaviors that we would not consider barbaric (like stoning blasphemers and disobedient children to death).
So? Who made you the arbiter of what is morally right or wrong?

You don't understand the Bible's position on slavery because you don't agree that all of us, every man, woman, and child on this earth is a slave to something. Slavery is our natural state. We are either slaves to ourselves or slaves to God. So the Bible can't condemn what is an integral part of God's creation. St. Paul freely admitted that he was a "bond-slave" of Christ. But I also hold that fallen man makes a terrible master. So I delight in the institution of slavery, yet condemn some forms of it.

quantamos said...

Well, by "straw" I mean that he probably would have been able to come up with better responses than you give him. :-) However, my criticism is probably unavoidable for this rhetorical style.