Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A "conversation" with Tim Keller

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

[UPDATE: It turns out I may have gotten at least one important aspect of Tim Keller's theology wrong.  Keller is a Presbyterian, and hence a Calvinist, and hence believes in predestination.  Whether or not this means that he does not believe in free will I cannot say.  To me, predestination is logically incompatible with free will, but I have no idea if Keller agrees with this.  See the postscript at the end for more about why I cannot correct this error.]

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:

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.

Praise for the Prius

On a recent vacation I decided to rent a Toyota Prius. After driving it 200 miles the gas tank was still showing full. Not mostly full, but completely, 100% full. (It's a digital gage.) I thought to myself: this can't be right. Even if the thing does get 50 miles to the gallon, that still means we've burned 4 gallons and it can't be more than a 10-12 gallon tank, right? So it just has to be down at least a third of a tank, right? So that means that the gas gage must be broken. So that means that we really have no idea how much gas we have, and we could get stuck in the middle of nowhere. So we'd better fill up.

We pulled in to what is very likely the very last pump-first-pay-later gas station in the United States, possibly the world and topped it off. By the time gas was bubbling out of the filler hose we'd squeezed 2.7 gallons into the tank.

2.7 gallons!

Holy shit! We'd been averaging more than 70 miles per gallon! I would not have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.

The most amazing thing about is that these were not 200 highway miles. These were 200 miles in the city and an badly overcrowded state highway. These were 200 frustrating stop-and-go miles. It turns out that the Prius, probably because of the regenerative braking system, actually uses less gas in the city than on the highway. I am duly impressed.

If only it didn't look so goofy I might actually buy one for myself.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Like father, like daughter

Not that I would ever trust anything that I read on Fox News, but if what they report is true it puts a whole new light on Chelsea Clinton's dressing-down of a student who (supposedly) asked her about Monica Lewinski. That question earned a terse response:

“Wow, you’re the first person actually that’s ever asked me that question in the, I don’t know, maybe 70 college campuses I’ve now been to, and I do not think that is any of your business,” [Chelsea] Clinton said.

And if the question had actually been about Monica I would have had a certain amount of sympathy for this position. But (if Fox News is to be believed, which is always a big IF) it wasn't. The question was about Hillary's credibility in light of her comment about the "vast right-wing conspiracy." According to Fox:

"A male questioner earned a terse response when he asked whether her mother’s credibility had been hurt during the scandal. Before learning the truth about her husband’s relationship with Lewinsky, the former first lady had claimed the allegations against him were fabricated by a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

That question is very much in bounds, because the fact of the matter is that Bill Clinton did "have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinski."

I am beginning to think that the entire Clinton family is nothing but a pack of pathological liars.