Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt



The goal of Stephen Meyer’s recent book, Darwin’s Doubt, seems straightforward: clear an ecumenical path for the scientific viability of Intelligent Design. Of interest to me was Meyer’s detailing of allegedly non-Darwinian theories recently spawned from within the scientific establishment, the inevitable response – so the argument goes – to the still unexplained proliferation of new animal forms during the Cambrian period. Given Meyer’s humble underdog appeal, patient tutoring, and respect for the relevant sciences, I even found myself appreciative of his eventual philosophical argument for the classification of Intelligent Design as a ‘scientific’ theory.

But I wondered. What would the ‘other side’ have to say about all this? Gareth Cook’s review for the New Yorker satisfied some of my curiosity. Cook tells us that the “aim” of Meyer’s book is to “rekindle the ‘intelligent design’ movement” [all emphases here are mine]. The theory of intelligent design is “Probably best understood as the central element of a cunning legal argument,” for which the “engineers” of intelligent design “improved the disguise” of creation science. “Their agenda” was setback in 2005 when a federal judge declared intelligent design a “religion.” Darwin’s Doubt is “pseudoscience.” Meyer “appears” serious and reasonable. Those “who sense that science is a conspiracy against spiritual meaning will find the book a thrilling read.” The most “honest moments” come at the very end of the book, when Meyer offers a few personal reflections on meaning and the universe. “Here, at last, Meyer is not pretending to be a scientist.”

If Cook was after an accurate and informative book review, he failed. That may not have been his goal, however, in which case, he perhaps succeeded brilliantly. But I have saved Cook’s most striking comment for last:

Most absurd of all is the book’s stance on knowledge: if something cannot be fully explained by today’s science—and there is plenty about the Cambrian, and the universe, that cannot—then we should assume it is fundamentally beyond explanation, and therefore the work of a supreme deity.

This is decisively not the book’s explicit stance on knowledge. Meyer offers his theory as the ‘best explanation’ according to ecumenical criteria such as falsifiability and the ability to make predictions. I think the New Yorker owes a correction, and given the word “absurd,” perhaps also an apology.

If this is what the ‘other side’ has to say about Darwin’s Doubt, then I encourage everyone to buy Meyer’s book and read it.

But I pause. Crucial to Meyer’s argument is the satisfaction of this criterion: our scientific theories must appeal to causal connections observable in the world today. Meyer argues that good science can talk about design by non-physical Intelligence, even if we have no idea how this could work, since this is the explanation we give every day for the information-rich products of our own conscious, intentional acts. I do not think this argument works. That our intentionality and creative acts are themselves constituted by physical mechanisms is a defining assumption in current mind science.

Meyer side steps this problem, perhaps inadvertently, by appeal to the conventional ‘mind-body problem’ philosophers like to talk about, a reference to our apparent inability to explain, in principle, the subjective ‘what it is like to be me’ (consciousness) in purely objective terms. This might make for an interesting argument for the limitations of science, but that would not be what Meyer needs. Meyer needs to show that we do observe today, even though we cannot explain it, non-physical minds causing physical items rich with information. To do this, Meyer conflates this mind-body explanatory problem with an outdated Cartesian metaphysics. To complete his argument, Meyer appeals to a “principle” we see operative in the world today by which “immaterial thought” and “rational activity of mind” impresses “itself on the physical world.” Thoughts, decisions, and choices “occur in our conscious minds” and then somehow “affect our material brains, nerves, and muscles.”

Given the current state of the mind sciences and the now entrenched concern over ‘embodiment,’ Meyer’s centuries-old metaphysic is not going to work as part of an argument that otherwise seeks to appeal to the most current scientific questions and data. The problem extends beyond the abstract question of what kind of thing the mind is. The idea of ‘thoughts’ and ‘decisions’ existing inside ‘conscious minds’ gives expression to the lingering myth of the Autonomous Rational Self. If we are not god-like in this way – and we are not – then we do not have an observed model by which to conceive of a disembodied spirit willing new animal types into existence.

There is one other thing. Meyer’s overall story and argument suffers from a high degree of implausibility when set in proper context: After hundreds of millions of years of the natural development of the worm, a supreme intelligence decided to help things along by morphing the worm into a trilobite?

As a side note: I was inclined to offer more protest here to the arrogant ‘priesthood’ of science, but ambivalence settled in once I remembered the history from which this metaphor draws its power.

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Glen Beck’s The Overton Window & “Restore America”



Last night, I completed Glen Beck’s The Overton Window, although I am not sure why – light reading that was just sitting there, perhaps, to punctuate my progress through Gone with the Wind.  In many respects, I did enjoy the book. No doubt less noble material currently sits on the shelves of the local book store. Yet, I was left confused over just what precisely I had read.  Still sorting it out, here are some timely thoughts. Today is the day before Beck’s “Restore America” event.

Beck is not a conspiracy theorist, he tells us.  In the opening “Note From the Author,” Beck prophecies that his enemies will try to spin such an attack without even reading the book – so goes Beck’s spin against his critics before they have yet written anything to not read.  No, not a conspiracy theorist, nor a spin-scum sophist appealing to the more crass emotions of the populist. Beck is rather a novelist, a master of humanities and critical thinking, a creative artist fostering “deeper conversations”.  In the Afterward, Beck writes:

It’s one of the intriguing potentials of this sort of fiction: When your mind suspends disbelief, it may also become more willing to consider a broader spectrum of possible outcomes to the events and agendas that are playing out around us every day (294).

But even here, in this one brief didactic attempt to set the record straight and explain his sober educational intentions, Beck cannot help but suggest a little bit more:  “It’s unlikely we’ll face anything close to the challenges” the protagonists are up against in the story.  “But after experiencing their scenario in its fictional setting, maybe it will become a little easier to have deeper conversations about the important forces that are actually at work in the real world.”  I call your attention to the critical phrases “anything close”, “experiencing their scenario,” and “the important forces that are actually at work in the real world.”  So the reader is given the green light to imagine just how non-fictional the simplistic, conspiratorial plot really is.

Character development within the story does little to mitigate a concern over conspiratorial intentions, even though Beck seems to make great efforts to moralize just here. The popular rhetorician, Danny Bailey, learns the importance in setting up careful boundaries on his own rhetoric and lust for attention, but only in so far as Danny might unwittingly incite literal violence, more specifically, the use of an atomic bomb on the city of Las Vegas.  That is not setting a high bar for carefulness, scholarship, self-critical inquiry, humility, and sobriety – to put it mildly. 

Therefore, despite how much I did enjoy the story and many of the interesting facts and cool quotes about authoritarianism and freedom, I can find little evidence from The Overton Window to warrant a rejection of Steven Benet’s hypothesis today regarding Glen Beck’s mental state (found in his Washington Monthly article ‘Political Animal’). This hypothesis was captured well by Benet’s quote from Atrius of the Eschaton blog: “The slightly interesting thing about Beck is that he appears to be an insane megalomaniac who is self-aware enough to be aware of that fact. It’s what allows him to be a huckster clown on top of it.”  

Benent’s on-line article provides Beck’s brief video advertising the event set for tomorrow.   The video’s narrator explains that “Man has always searched for a better way. . . . a new world founded on faith . . . by a people who believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was a power greater than man guiding them.” Beck gets the nature of faith right here.  Faith is the unquestioned certainty that one knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that one’s thoughts are in fact Gods thoughts and that one’s will is in fact God’s will.  A monstrous proposition of course, and so it is not surprising that the narrator double-speaks: “Men guided by their own reason.” 

The Overton Window is not silent here.  The wisest sage of the story, Molly, explains that the difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution was that “We believed we had the will of God behind us.”  Beware, I say, of someone who makes a career out of mocking Ivy League institutions and the ‘elitists,’ for it is perhaps only there where our history may be rightly preserved. 

But all this is perhaps too much rigor over the profoundly banal. If Beck wanted to gain the respect of someone like me, he would not be sharing the stage with Sarah Palin, and he would certainly not then state on Fox news that her presence was “nothing political.”  But we need not ponder even these facets of the man’s psychology. The tail was already pinned on the donkey. Earlier, Beck explained his expectations for tomorrow’s event:

And that’s kind of the point of 8/28: you just have to stand where the Lord wants you to stand. He’ll explain it to you when the time comes. You can feel the presence of the Lord. I mean, the Spirit is so strong. When you, two hundred, three hundred, five hundred thousand people on the Mall in that space right there between Washington and Lincoln with the Reflecting Poll – a spiritual space in our nation – the Spirit of the Lord is going to be unleashed like I think you’ve never felt it before. 

I comfort myself with the possibility that within some halls of our Universities, there remains a small flickering flame of what we are inclined to call progress.

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Responses to the ‘New Atheism’, Part 1: Ravi Zacharias & Sam Harris



A conservative Christian family member recently sent me Ravi Zacharias’s book The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists (2008) and asked that I offer a reply.  The following is my reply.

_____

1.  Introduction

1.1  The Author
Ravi Zacharias, born in India and now a Canadian/American, is a well known “international” Christian apologist. Zacharias preached in Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam war, participated in Harvard’s first Veritas Forum, and has given presentations at Princeton. He spent a brief time as a visiting scholar at Cambridge University and is currently a visiting professor at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. In all other respects, he appears to enjoy the general career of the apologist: books, website, ministry, conferences, and radio.

1.2  The Occasion
The End of Reason (2008) is Zacharias’s response to Sam Harris’s bestselling Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). As indicated by the subtitle (“a response to the new atheists”), Zacharias intends to also implicitly address Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins.  These other authors are explicitly noted intermittently: Zacharias refers to “Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and a few others” (16), “Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett” (30), “Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris” (43), “Christopher Hitchens, a man too intelligent to write a book as base as The Missionary Position” (101), and “Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others” (126).  Dennett is on my view the most interesting intellectual out of the four (Hitchens the most notable), yet Zacharias has nothing to say about him. Dennett remains lurking in the evangelical shadows of “and others”.

_____

2.  The Opening Tale

2.1  Paragraph One
On my view, the most intriguing part of The End of Reason is the opening five paragraphs (13-15), the first two serving as the foundation. Here is the opening paragraph:

A university student arrives home and informs his parents that, after reading a popular atheist’s book, he has renounced his family’s faith.  His mother, particularly, is shattered by the news.  The father struggles to engage his son in dialogue, but to no avail. The deepening grief causes them to distance themselves from their son.  When the game of silence does not work, the mother is plunged further into depression and despair.  The grandparents become involved, watching in anguish as beliefs that have been held dear in the family for generations crumble.  Before long, this family that was once close and peaceable is now broken and hostile.  Abusive words between mother and son are exchanged with increasing frequency and intensity, and the siblings blame their brother’s new strident atheism for the rift in the family. After a long night of arguing with her son, pleading unsuccessfully with him to reconsider his position, the mother takes an overdose of prescription medication and ends her life, unable to accept what she interprets to be the destruction of her family.

This is certainly a sad tale.  But can even the discerning, charitable reader predict what the moral of this story will be?  This short narrative entertains some events that are unquestionably fanciful, such as the son’s declaration that he has “renounced his family’s faith” and the fact that it is the religious father who “struggles to engage” in “dialog”. It is improbable, if not incredible, that a University student would refuse to dialog about an influential book he has just read. With these narrative details put aside, however, the rest of the story appears to me sufficiently realistic given the level of ‘dysfunction’ in many families. It seems reasonable to suppose, for example, that parents as characterized generally by this story would naturally cling not to the seeking after what is empirically true, enlightening, and that which promotes the common good of society, but rather, to the “family’s faith”. Similarly, it is not implausible that grandparents are watching on as traditional beliefs held “for generations crumble”. This appears to be, in fact, a universal story of the conservative mind meeting a changing world.

All we know about the son from this short story is that he was sincerely convinced, after reading a book, that God does not exist, and further, that he is willing to confess this to his parents. The level of grief experienced by the parents is therefore not what we might consider a healthy response.  That it is the parents that distance themselves reveal a particularly unhealthy, albeit common, set of social habits. I appreciate Zacharias’s willingness to include the real possibility of unjust and irrational shunning that often takes place in social situations like this. Zacharias calls this shunning “a game of silence”, implying some level of intentional manipulation. This increases the injustice of the parent’s initial response exponentially. Given this shunning, game of silence, and despair on the part of the son’s parents, the larger family unit becomes “broken and hostile”.  The mother is willing to engage in “abusive words” with her son, which the son now, apparently, begins to offer back. The parents are willing to allow their son’s other siblings to blame his new sincerely adopted and studied beliefs to be the sole cause of the family’s suffering. The university student is therefore unjustly accused by his immediate peers under the oversight of his very own parents.  Even after all this, the parents take it upon themselves to berate  their son long into the night, “pleading” with him.  The mother is apparently unwilling to reconsider her manipulative game of shunning her own son and unwilling to stand up for her son against the unjust accusations from her other children. Rather, so determined that her son’s new beliefs have been the sole cause of the “destruction of her family”, she commits suicide.

2.2  Paragraph Two
So what, then, is the moral of this story?  Why did Zacharias open the book with precisely this moving narrative?  Did the father or mother do anything wrong?  Is there anything they might have done different?  Did their other children respond in ways that were unjust?  Should the parents have rather corrected this problem between their children? Is the shunning, the game of silence, and the accusations against the ‘black sheep’ of the family the target of the forthcoming lesson? As it turns out, none of these issues are to the point of the story.  Rather, the point is that the book that this university student read that helped lead to his new beliefs should not have ever been written.  The person who wrote the book is immoral and deluded. (more…)

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Faith & Reason, Part 7: Here I Stand



the-death-of-sapphira-wife-of-ananiusPlaying armchair chess with technical terms – what the mathematical monkeys and theology wonks consider precisely defined natural language – just might reveal a tension between Faith and Reason. Or it might not. Either way, it does not matter. We are after a real tension between faith as it is in the world and reason as it is in the world. Further, as we have seen, even a more sensitive armchair approach to central topics such as Belief, Knowledge, Narrative, and Metaphor has left us with the opposite of what we were out to accomplish. These topics, comfortably off the ground and up snug in the arm chair, evidence a harmony between Faith and Reason. Indeed, the two concepts, under contemporary and considerably subtle scrutiny, begin looking much the same.

Once we begin poking reality as it is now and as it has been recorded in world history, the situation changes a good deal. Despite the assuring platitudes of the rationalist cleric or the mystic philosopher, tensions, disharmony, polarization, enmity, and violence are seen everywhere. Faith is at war with Reason. But if this is reality, so much for the armchair.

I of course speak banality for the ignorant, although I feel the effort may be worth it given the size of this constituency, which comprises, H.L. Menken informs us, 99.8% of the civilized populace (an idea that took me 35 painful years to finally venture believing). And so I remind the idiots reading this blog: once we get off our armchair and quit our sanitized chess game, it becomes much easier to imagine opening a window or, even, venturing outside into the sun and one’s more natural place in the food chain – which, by the way, is fairly low. One is not educated unless they travel; but this need not be to Paris; it could be a trip to the cry closet of a lonely child, the sandbox where four year olds tussle, the den where grown men rape a thirteen year old girl, or the dusty battle field scarred with the rotten flesh of the latest empire and the latest theonomic regime. Getting out – and generalizing a bit – helps prepare one for the inescapable fact that they are a dumb and frail animal that knows more of its petty lusts for comfort and control than truth and justice.

Those aspects of the environment that pertain to Faith and Reason reinforce the idea nicely, as they are, despite the dictates of armchair philosophy, all bipolar: we see the church and the academy, the monastery and the University, Jerusalem and Athens, the monk and the philosopher, religion and science, the hypothesis and the creed, the sage and the self-critical, the loyal disciple and the free-intellect, dogmatics and the inquiry, the authoritative Bernard of Clairvaux and the denigrated Abelard.

And indeed, we see the Apostle Peter killing layman and hurling insult and condemnation at any political opponent in the new ecclesia; the Apostle Paul threatening the ‘rod’ for his baby birds at Corinth that dare think more highly of the classically trained teachers than they do of their jealous, manipulative father – exalting his flights into the seventh heaven over all the combined genuine wisdom of the ancient world; the author of Hebrews threatening – page after venomous page – nothing short than torture for those who wish to stop attending the mind-altering liturgies or wish to not ‘obey those that rule among them.’ Should it therefore be surprising in our own day that Dear Leader John Piper has warmly invited the harmful, raving orangutan in North Idaho to instruct the evangelical world about the glories of John Calvin’s Big Brother? This is just the New Testament of love I am here dealing with – with a final sprinkling of some Romans 9. Shall we even dare turn back and investigate the dark, barbaric violence alleged in the histories of the Old Testament?

Perhaps you see what kind of new methodology that awaits us: the anthropological, the historical, the investigative; in sum, the empirical.

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Faith & Reason, Part 6: The Nature of Knowledge, Part 2



knowledgeIn the hopes of populating a conceptual domain that contrasts with ‘faith’, it would seem – on the face of it at least – that the search be well served by sticking close to those realities we refer to as ‘knowledge’. But ‘knowledge’ is a word with a broad use; in addition to propositional knowledge – for example, ‘knowing that eggs are not green’ – we can also get to know a person (including God), know how to question a fool, or come to know what it is like to worship God in Holiness. We are already up to four kinds of knowledge here: propositional, personal, practical, and experiential. And the Hebraic mind was often quite satisfied with just the latter three. Thus, for a fundamentalism bound to the language of Old Testament scripture, emphasis may be properly placed on the knowledge of how to live in community, the knowledge of God the person, and the knowledge of what it was like to worship God and love the brethren.

Drawing exegetical support for this general point is not difficult. Consider, for example, one of the most important claims about knowledge in the New Testament, a reference to personal knowledge of God:

. . . that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks. (Romans 1:19-23)

Our Hellenistic tradition has often assumed this to be a reference to our natural ability to derive propositional knowledge about God. But this is a gross imposition on the text. Paul is not making the more difficult claim that all the non-Christians in Rome have propositional knowledge about the true God; this could have been disconfirmed with a simple probe of basic questions. Rather, this is a presentation of a more mysterious notion – more true to the apostle’s ethos – that there is a personal relationship felt on some level; a personal knowledge of God’s unique personality and divinity; a conscience, an impulse to respond in relational ways: “…even though they knew God they did not . . . give thanks.”  In addition to this innate, irreducible, and relational kind of knowledge, we are confronted with the possibility of the mystical, the numinous, a special connection to the transcendent.

Now recall last entry’s topic. This is Plantinga’s sensus divinitatus working, naturally, on half steam and grinding away on a number of broken gears and pulleys, but now knocked off its analytic armchair and handed over to the literati.

If the fundamentalist did know what it was like to worship the true God, did know how to live in community with wisdom, and did know the personal God in whom we live, move, and have our being, then it is not clear how much need there would be for the knowledge of facts about God to begin with. The skeptic’s point about knowing what you know might just be beside the point of knowledge.  Propositional knowledge of fact, pace Plantinga, is not properly basic; there is no need for a cognitive belief generating module to be zapped back into place by Big Brother. Rather, propositional knowledge is properly irrelevant.

But again, our concern about the tension between faith and reason is a very reasonable one, a very sound, practical concern resonating with the intuition of most over many centuries. So where do we turn to address this tension? I have already found armchair investigation of Belief (Part 1 & Part 2), Metaphor , and Narrative to give us nothing, and now Knowledge is also a dead end. I will therefore abandon philosophy proper altogether.  A new methodology awaits.

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Faith & Reason, Part 5: The Nature of Knowledge



plantingaWe have tried Belief (Intro & Part 1 and Part 2), Metaphor, and Narrative and have found nothing. The armchair exploration of these joints of nature have only reinforced the notion that there is only harmony between faith and reason. But before torturing, burning, shooting, and mutilating our philosophical armchair and moving on, we have one last domain to address: Knowledge.

 

Before getting right to the meat, however, I want to give a layman’s introduction to the work of the new reformed epistemology, best represented by Alvin Plantinga. I am most comfortable referring to Plantinga’s work only. Without Plantinga’s presence as a world class analytic philosopher in the 20th century, the contemporary philosophy classroom would have less patience for a conservative Christian point of view.  We would also be without the 20th century’s greatest effort to locate a philosophical harmony between faith and reason – capped off by Oxford’s 2000 edition of Warranted Christian Belief.  To the layman, the title might suggest an exploration of Belief, rather than Knowledge. However, in Plantinga’s game Warranted Christian Belief just is Knowledge. ‘Belief’ is the place holder and ‘Warranted’ is the war.

 

The backdrop to Plantinga’s argument is the traditional Justified True Belief model, a model that has been refined and rarified by countless too many analytic monkeys.  On this model, someone knows something if – and as any of the mathematical monkeys would say, only if - they have a true belief that is rationally justified in the right sort of way. Knowledge IS (=) Justified True Belief. It helps to symbolize (obviously): K=JTB. Here is the idea: Someone might have a belief that turns out to be true, but unless this someone also owns justification for that belief, the belief will not amount to something we would call ‘knowledge’.   On this traditional model, justification comes about when a belief is rooted in the right sort of evidence in the right sort of way; the evidence comes – as it must – in the form of other beliefs, and so the model is inherently internalistic; this is an example of epistemic internalism.

 

One would think that humans would not be needed for this project; I suspect that a software program could have been designed for the generation of many of the published articles. But there are some interesting nuances: What this internalism means is that that which confers the status of knowledge to a true belief is that which is in principle something within the conscious grasp of the individual. Hence, the individual has the ability to sweep his own epistemic house, so to speak (as Chisholm once put it).  This is a matter of one having special access to that which gives a true belief the status of knowledge.  Special access is closely related to the general meaning of ‘justification’: someone can in principle justify his own beliefs. (I will take the liberty to note that this conception fits well with other illusions, such as freedom, control, inherent moral goodness or evil, and general, robust conscious awareness).

 

But internalism might not be true. There is the possibility that that which confers the status of knowledge to a true belief is not something the individual in principle has special access to. This would be the position called externalism. Externalism is therefore simply the denial of internalism. Alvin Plantinga is an externalist and therefore spends some of his time simply arguing against the thesis of internalism and spends some of his other time arguing for just what it is that does confer knowledge status to a true belief.  For Plantinga, knowledge is warranted true belief, or K=WTB.  (more…)

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Evan Wilson & the Big Haus



evanleslielibraryblogheader

As I would not be able to say about his brother , Evan Wilson is a man of peace. I found refuge and hospitality years ago in a sub-cultural of Moscow, Idaho, ruled by Evan and known as the Big Haus.  Click here  for a recent introduction.  I guess that sometimes you do reap what you sow and you will be found out – one way or the other – later in life.

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Faith & Reason, Part 4: The Nature of Narrative



monkies-on-trial2

Similar to what we have already found regarding Metaphor, appreciation is growing for the importance of Narrative in our understanding of ourselves and the world. See for example: 

Herman, David (2002), Story Logic (University of Nebraska). MacIntyre, Alasdair (1981), After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press). Mitchell, John (2005), ‘Evaluating Brady Error Using Narrative Theory: A Proposal For Reform’, Drake Law Review, 53, pp. 599-629. Pennington, Nancy & Hastie, Reid  (1992), ‘Explaining the Evidence: Tests of the Story Model For Jural Decision Making’.  Yamane, David (2000), ‘Narrative and Religious Experience’,  Sociology of Religion, 61:2, pp. 171-89. Crites, Stephen (1971), ‘The Narrative Quality of Experience’, From Journal of the American Academcy of Religion, XXXIX, 3.  In Why Narrative ?, Eds. Stanley Hauerwas and Gregory Jones. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997. Elkins, James (1985), ‘On the Emergence of Narrative Jurisprudence: The Humanistic Perspective Finds a New Path’, Legal Studies Forum, 2, pp. 123-56. Hauerwas, Stanley, and David B. Burrell (1977), ‘From System to Story: An Alternative Pattern for Rationality in Ethics’,  In Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press).  Reddy, William (2001), ‘The Logic of Action: Indeterminacy, Emotion, and Historical Narrative’, History and Theory, Theme Issue, 40, pp. 10-33. Schick, Theodore (1982), ‘Can Fictional Literature Communicate Knowledge?’, Journal of Aesthetic Education, 16, pp. 31-39.

 

And I have been pleasantly surprised by Daniel Dennett’s conjecture that consciousness is the result of a pandemonium of competing, atomic narrative scripts (Consciousness Explained, 1991).

 

Consider investigative journalism and law: Narrative was perhaps the most important tool I had while making my discoveries about the Kirk.  Appeal to evidence and primary documents was foundational, but a decisive verdict required months of narrative development and interpretation. This importance of narrative in adjudicating the truth of a claim and compelling appropriate belief is summed up well by the US Supreme Court majority opinion:

 

The ‘fair and legitimate weight’ of conventional evidence showing individual  thoughts and acts amounting to a crime reflects the fact that making a case with testimony and tangible things not only satisfies the formal definition of an offense, but tells a colorful story with descriptive richness.  Unlike an abstract premise, whose force depends on going precisely to a particular step in a course of reasoning, a piece of evidence may address any number of separate elements, striking hard just because it shows so much at once…Evidence that has force beyond any linear scheme of reasoning, and as its pieces come together a narrative gains momentum, with power not only to support conclusions but to sustain the willingness of jurors to draw the inferences, whatever they may be, necessary to reach an honest verdict…  (Old Chief v. United States; my emphasis).

 

The moral significance of individual thoughts and actions requires more than an inductive view of relevant evidence; it requires a narrative structure. The practice of law and judicial decision has provided fertile ground for theorizing about narrative

 

(I have not yet seen the debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens, but I know who employed the right tools and who didn’t.  I am not surprised by the analytic yahoos declaring Hitchens’ defeat).  

 

But narrative has also been of interest in the field of axiology. In an essay discussing moral responsibility, free will, and Frankfurt cases, John Fischer (1999) cites David Velleman’s work on narrative (1991):  “later events are thought to alter the meaning of earlier events, thereby altering their contribution to the value of one’s life.”  (more…)

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Faith & Reason, Part 3: The Nature of Metaphor



jesus-with-sheepNote: I altered some of this entry after studying conceptual metaphor more this summer.

_______

 

In the hopes of locating a tension between faith and reason by means of armchair philosophy I first explored the subject of Belief. I found nothing to be of help – just the opposite. Now I turn to Metaphor.   

 

Appreciation has been growing for the metaphorical-like way we grasp one knowledge domain in terms of another very disparate knowledge domain; a corollary to this is the growing appreciation for what we are more familiar with: linguistic metaphor, such as ‘Juliet is the Sun’ or the first time someone said ‘take a hike’.

 

See for example:

Gibbs, Raymond (2006), ‘Metaphor Interpretation as Embodied Simulation’, Mind & Language, 21:3, pp. 434-58.  Sopory, Pradeep (2005), ‘Metaphor and Affect’, Poetics Today 26:3, pp. 433-58. Hogan, Patrick (2002), ‘A Minimal, Lexicalist/Constituent Transfer Account of Metaphor’,  Style, 36:3, pp. 484-502.  (2003a), The Mind and Its Stories. Cambridge University Press. (2003b), Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists (Routledge).   Johnson, Mark and George Lakoff (1999), Philosophy In The Flesh (Perseus Books Group). Ritchie, David (2003), ‘ARGUMENT IS WAR—Or is it a Game of Chess? Multiple Meanings in the Analysis of Implicit Metaphors’, Metaphor and Symbol, 18:2, pp. 125-46. (2004), ‘Common Ground in Metaphor Theory: Continuing the Conversation’, Metaphor and Symbol,  19:3, 233-44. Guttenplan, Samuel (2005), Objects of Metaphor (Oxford University Press).

 

Novel metaphor is ubiquitous in natural language, and in fact appears necessary for understanding objects of science and our own unconscious mind. This is in part because metaphor allows us to understand something ‘not seen’ according to a domain we have a good deal of experiential knowledge of. More generally, though, this just seems to be a basic way in which our mind ‘maps’ any new domain of experience onto existing domains of knowledge.  To make a metaphor out of linguistic ‘metaphor’, we could say that at root we know the world and ourselves metaphorically.

 

Metaphor is the predominate language of religion – once thought a liability, this fact may now be considered a strength. Just as the non-Christian and Christian know that in the same way – a fact well conceded by Plantinga’s popular conceptual analysis – the non-Christian and Christian also know metaphorically in the same way. There is no distinction in cognitive understanding between grasping the sage’s claim that ‘God is a rock’ and the philosopher’s claim that the unconscious mind locates, tracks, and identifies objects. 

 

Something further follows: Sage, philosopher, and scientist are all free to engage in a form of understanding that does not permit matter of fact yes or no answers.  Metaphor is not the sort of thing that is precisely true or false, but rather more or less apt; (more…)

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The Moral Argument, Part 5: Collision Movie



COLLISION – 13 min VIMEO Exclusive Sneak Peak from Collision Movie on Vimeo.

This is apparently just the first 13 minutes of the soon to be released movie. Here is a transcript of an important section from about the five to seven minute mark:

 

Hitchens: I am impressed with Douglas for this reason: very often when I debate with religious Jews, Christians, and Muslims, what they are trying to do is say, look, our morality is the same. So we agree on what is or is not moral. Its just we disagree about where it comes from. No, he understands very well: It is the will of God that is involved. 

 

Wilson: I am a Christian. I take it on faith. I believe that faith provides me with the basis for rationality and I believe that my faith in God and his Word and his Christ provides me with an objective basis for moral considerations, moral values.

 

Hitchens: Pastor Wilson doesn’t make it easy on himself in that way.  He imposes on himself and on others an unbelievably strenuous burden of worry and guilt. . . .

 

Wilson: People say look, are you a fundamentalist? Do you take the bible literally? The answer is no.  But I believe it absolutely. This is a collection of 66 books written over centuries – many different genres, many different authors. And I believe it is our responsibility to study it, understand it, and understand what genre a particular book of the bible is.  Is this history? Yes or no.  Is this poetry? Yes or no.  Is this prophetic enunciation? Is this epistolary? What is it? And then I believe it and accept it that way, on its own terms.

 

Hitchens: Whether the argument is celestial, or original [concerning the creation or earliest stage], social or political – any of these dimensions – it puts him and me, despite our good personal relations, on a side apart, divided from one another.  There’s no bridge that can suffice. One of us not just has to lose the argument but has to admit real moral defeat.  I think it should be him.

 

This last statement is worth repeating: One of us not just has to lose the argument but has to admit real moral defeat.  I think it should be him.

 

I argue for the inherent immorality of Wilson’s moral argument for the existence of God in The Moral Argument, Part 4 .  

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Leithart, the Probe, and Nathan Phelps



leithart-crop

Dr. Peter Leithart is the Cambridge trained theologian of the Kirk, operating ‘out of bounds’ as a PCA minister. Leithart now heads the New St. Andrew’s College’s new graduate program after performing for years as a foundational faculty member. I had mentored with Leithart the year or so previous to the launch of Pooh’s Think, Part 1, and he was a friend. He had always been kind to me and in fact is the only ‘Kirker’ who ever showed a sincere desire to listen to me once Father Wilson included me among his local enemies. Leithart even set up meetings between Wilson and myself that he moderated, after explaining he was sympathetic “to both sides.” During the meetings, he was quick to interrupt Wilson but he always allowed me to speak my mind.  Leithart offered no protest even when I offered Wilson some ferocious interrogating questioning over the ‘Letter without Signatures,’ which was an important embarrassment of the Kirk’s just after she began her bullying of me.  This was truly, on one level, the tyrant having to submit to a balance of power in order for the dissenting, minority voice of the weak to get a hearing.

 

Today I recalled something I learned about the working of my unconscious mind just after the launch of Pooh’s Think, Part 1, and I owe this revelation to Leithart. Informal coffee at a local shop was Leithart’s traditional preference for meetings, but his first approach to this post-poohsthink era was marked by a greeter degree of formality than was custom. I met Leithart in his office at New St. Andrew’s College and not too far along into the meeting it became evident to me that he was offering a mild form of gracious interrogation. He was to ask me questions, and I was to answer. He asked me a question about homosexuality and emergent theology. Perhaps not fully satisfied by my answer, he followed up by asking if homosexuality is “wrong.”  “Yes,” I answered. I had been defending emergent Brian McLaren and others from libelous, irrational attacks from the Kirk – all generated by anti-homosexual rhetoric – and so I suppose there was a suspicion I had become a bit ‘squishy’ on the issue.

 

I remember how odd it was to sit there in this environment and feel no emotion of any kind.  I self-monitored my level of agitation and heart rate.  I was more than calm. I was about ready to fall asleep by a combination of boredom and exhaustion (the blasts, clinched fists, and shrieks of the new blog war could not be heard from Leithart’s monastic chamber).  I really did not know why I was even there meeting with Leithart. I did not care what I was asked and had no rhetorical purpose.  I was happy to answer any question in perfect sincerity and truth.  I had nothing to hide and I felt not the slightest bit of defensiveness as I sat there, half-numb, answering the questions.

 

The questioning led to me talking a bit.  I was talking about Wilson’s war against the community – I had already conceptualized it as precisely that.  I mentioned my concern about how we were treating our local neighbors and noted it was the opposite of Jesus’ ministry.  But just then I began to cry.  Crying turned into a bit of ginger weeping and I could not stop.  Leithart kindly got up and closed the blinds, hiding me from the public side-walk just outside his large window. 

 

I was not necessarily in doubt of what the main driving force was during those early days of dissent, but I was also skeptical of what underlying motives might have been lurking in the background.  The stark change in emotional reaction during this meeting with Leithart confirmed that at least a significant motivation was one that I was willing to defend as self-justifying in the face of any coming retaliatory abuse.  This was a helpful probe into the workings of my unconscious mind, and as startled as I was by the probe’s effect, it was not difficult to considered it just that on the spot. I did not enjoy breaking down in tears in front of Leithart over what seemed to be almost nothing, but the violent change of emotions over this singular issue was enough to confirm I had some of the right kind of fuel to propel me into what was coming (I would not have dared guess at that time I would have what it took to propel all the way through it and remain alive).

 

The occasion of this remembrance was a speech I read today for the second time  by Nathan Phelps (my thanks to Edward Babinski  for the notification).  Phelps grew up under the authority of a man, his father Fred Phelps, who has become internationally famous for following out certain implications of his reformed Baptist convictions. With an ever expanding gospel vision, Fred Phelps’ GodHatesFags.com  has blossomed into GodHatestheWorld.com  The striving  of Fred Phelps against his own local community, as described in this speech by Nathan Phelps, in many respects reminds me of Wilson’s war against, Moscow, his own small town in north Idaho.  (it is, by the way, pronounced ‘Mos-coe’ not ‘Mos-cow’).

 

The abuse Nathan Phelps saw as a young child within his own household – against him, his siblings, and his mother – is certainly nothing I have ever experienced, yet there are many astounding similarities in our two narratives.  Please read Phelp’s speech,  which offers a moving narrative of not only his childhood, but the long intellectual battle that was to follow PTSD and his confusing encounters with the ecumenical evangelical world years after running away from home, getting married, and having two children. Here is some of what Phelps said towards the end of his speech that I find of particular interest:

 

At night I worried and fretted.  Sleepless, anxious hours passed as I played violent confrontations with my father over and over in my mind. . .

 

Exposure to mainstream Christianity was creating conflicts and raising questions that sent me in search of answers.  I found a counselor with a theological as well as psychiatric degree, and spent 9 months working with him.  (more…)

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Faith & Reason, Part 2: The Nature of Belief (cont.)



monkey-thinkingThis entry is a continuation of the last post Faith vs. Reason, Part 1.  These two entries come as a pair.

 

Dispositionalism

Again, dispositionalism is the view (Schwitzgebel’s proposal in any case) that a belief just is the right sort of cluster of stereotypical dispositions – behavioral, cognitive, and phenomenal (‘behavioral’ includes the disposition to verbally affirm the belief “that P”). However, on my interpretation of the dispositionalist theory, a mild incoherence is forced since our conception of the stereotypical dispositions is dependant on referencing the belief in standard linguistic form: the “belief that P”. 

 poohthinking

The grammar evidences this.  While the theory holds that the stereotypical dispositions just are the belief, the theorist is left asking if this or that disposition is stereotypical “of the belief” in question. But the cluster of stereotypical dispositions cannot be the belief and at the same time be of the belief, since ‘of’ locates behavior that we expect to follow from the belief “that P.” These expectations result from our innate sense of practical rationality, not from what we take a given belief to be. Otherwise, so I claim, we have no way of deciphering whether a disposition was a genuine deviation from the stereotypical dispositions of a given belief. And so it seems we are stuck pointing to the linguistic “belief that P” as a necessary reference point before we can begin any discussion of  the theoretical “belief” that just is the stereotypical dispositions.

 

This, I think, is the only way to understand Schwitzgebel’s statement:

 

Does Ellen believe that all Spanish nouns ending in ‘a’ are feminine? Some of her dispositions accord with that belief. (260)

 

Are some of Ellen’s dispositions just “that belief,” or are they the sort that “accord with that belief”? In Schwitzbegel’s story, Ellen thinks that the proposition “all Spanish nouns ending in ‘a’ are feminine” is true. But her behavior suggests that she does not take this as true, since she speaks Spanish well, which includes the use of non-feminine nouns ending in ‘a’. “that belief” is identified with Ellen’s taking the world made true by “all Spanish nouns ending in ‘a’ are feminine” as the actual world; the dispositions either accord or don’t accord with that belief

 

Here Schwitzgebel makes the linguistic statement, “the belief that P,” the standard, which only seems right to me. There has to be a linguist anchor. Otherwise we are just talking about behavior and not belief behavior. We are especially cut off from belief behavior when we reference merely the skill of a language user. If Ellen can speak her native language fluently while having very little ability to verbally express beliefs about that language – such as grammar rules – then we should think that Ellen’s knowing how to speak a language does not require, in principle, beliefs about that language to begin with.  I would want to argue, for instance, that Ellen does not give evidence to any belief whatsoever when she expresses her ability to speak Spanish well. The only relevant belief we know she does have is a false one. What we mean by ‘belief’ must therefore be something other or at least something more than dispositions.

 

My Proposal

On my view, believing in its most primitive form cannot be separated from believing that. (Hebraic belief/faith, which is not tied as directly to statements of fact, is what I take to be a higher level, less primitive form of commitment).   Belief ascription is short hand to describe our behavioral dispositions and to describe the behavioral dispositions of others; it is a simplifying reduction rooted in language. (more…)

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