Sunday, July 31, 2011

We Need to Speak to Religious Moderates and Argue to Them Against Belief in Gods

Listen to Buckwheat Zydeco and make a change.
I feel like I should post, even though I am rather drained this evening and don't have anything in particular on my mind.

Seems I'm looking for some new growth in the atheist community or someting apprecialbly different from broader discussion of atheism and theism in our culture. Mostly, I see the same things I saw three years ago when I came "out" as an atheist. If anything, the religious manacles grip our world more tightly than before. Every shmoe cleric now thinks s/he knows enough physics, chemistry, biology, statistics, philosophy, and history to pronounce authoritaively on any topic that threatens the idea of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful personal god who wants you to avoid masturbation and pork.

And the atheist community appears rather stagnant. We laugh at the silly arguments and violent rhetoric of the ardent faithful. We defend the real work and the reasoning behind our positions. But nothing new or especially interesting is happening.

I'd like to see more inroads made to the religious moderates, to the regular men and women who go to houses of worship, lead them, and blithely understand their religion as generally a good thing.

50 or so atheists were recntly featured in a piece on "Why I don't believe in god." The world no longer needs that article. The article needed now is "Why you shouldn't believe in gods."
  • Because it's not true.
  • Because it sucks up time and money better spent elsewhere.
  • Because its teachings are conflicted and incoherent.
  • Because its inherent conservatism hampers substantive debate on key social and political issues.
  • Because its inherent pessimism stunts personal growth and intellectual maturity.
  • Because it doesn't soothe, doesn't center, and doesn't help. 
Readers? Other reasons for not believing in gods that would speak to religious moderates?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Kuzari Principle Conclusion: How the Sinai Story Originated and Developed

In this post I will fulfill my promise to explain how the Mt. Sinai story originated and developed. In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I am not a biblical scholar, critic, or historian. If you are reading this post and want to use it in a school paper or cite it as a really should move along. I should be considered a Herbert with an opinion, not a credible source for scholarship.

In previous posts on this topic I have clarified what the story actually is and is not. For instance, we have three different versions of the story from the J source, the E source, and the P source. On the other hand, we have a later commentary and interpretation in the D source (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:9-40). This later text is not a version of the story.

For my purposes, the Sinai story will be what we get in the earliest source, which is J. The verses below are the J source pulled from Exodus 19:
And the Lord said to Moses, "Go to the people and prepare them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments. And they shall be prepared for the third day, for on the third day, the Lord will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai. And you shall set boundaries for the people around, saying, Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.' No hand shall touch it, for he shall be stoned or cast down; whether man or beast, he shall not live. When the ram's horn sounds a long, drawn out blast, they may ascend the mountain."

So Moses descended from the mountain to the people, and he prepared the people, and they washed their garments. He said to the people, "Be ready for three days; do not go near a woman." It came to pass on the third day when it was morning. And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently.

The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain, and the Lord summoned Moses to the peak of the mountain, and Moses ascended. The Lord said to Moses, "Go down, warn the people lest they break [their formation to go nearer] to the Lord, and many of them will fall. And also, the priests who go near to the Lord shall prepare themselves, lest the Lord wreak destruction upon them." And Moses said to the Lord, "The people cannot ascend to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set boundaries for the mountain and sanctify it.'" But the Lord said to him, "Go, descend, and [then] you shall ascend, and Aaron with you, but the priests and the populace shall not break [their formation] to ascend to the Lord, lest He wreak destruction upon them."

So Moses went down to the people and said [this] to them.
As before, I am using text drawn from Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed. The main question before us is how the story began. We have several possible answers to consider:

1. The story is one-hundred-percent literally true. This answer is unrealistic because in the text of the story, the narrator presumes to know the actions and statements of both YHWH and Moses. The plain presentation of the content provides no reason to think that either YHWH or Moses is speaking in the third-person about himself. Instead, we have an unidentified and unknown storyteller relating events, actions, and speech--this is a very common mode of storytelling! The implication that YHWH was somehow directly responsible for the smoke and fire on Sinai is unsupportable.

2. The story is partially true and partially embellished. This option is more plausible than #1. Could there have been a Moses-like leader and a gathering of people around a smoking mountain? Yes, certainly this is a possible scenario. This is the legend option. In this case, however, we have no information to tell us definitively how close the story is to the true part. That is, we don’t know how much is factual, and we don’t know the distance in time between the real events and the story.

3. The story is completely fabricated.
This option is plausible, as fabricated stories are a particularly human pastime. Today, no one thinks the movie Independence Day is based on real events and people, even though it mentions real places, real occupations (such as President of the United States), realistic scenarios (sometimes), and so forth. No one requires a real Harry Potter or Hogwarts. So why should we doubt that ancient people could want and could create fictional stories? The story could have served a didactic function (explaining why we observe the laws taught by Moses and his heirs), an entertainment function (titillating with fire and smoke on a desert mountain – ooh!), or both.

We can justifiably take option #1 off the table because we have no reason to keep it. Can we decide between #2 and #3? Personally, I lean toward #3, since there’s no evidence that there ever was a real Moses. Yet, perhaps #2 is salvaged if we speculate that the earliest performances of the Sinai story drew upon a character known more generally in the Ancient Near East, like a Sargon of Akkad. After all, YHWH was one of something like 70 deities in the Ugaritic pantheon.

So we can only speculate--let’s call it option #3.1--that the Sinai story was a fabrication using pre-existing narrative elements which may have been factual at some point in the distant past. The story was part of a larger tapestry of narratives involving legendary figures and the local god. The story later became taken as historical. It became the basis for justifying the various daily religious observances and obligations of the people.

The E version already signals some of the elaborations that could be made from the story:
And Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel, ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles' wings, and I brought you to me. And now, if you obey me and keep my covenant, you shall be to me a treasure out of all peoples, for mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel."

Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, "All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!" and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord.

And the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever." And Moses relayed the words of the people to the Lord.

There were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered. Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice.

The people remained far off, but Moses drew near to the opaque darkness, where God was. The Lord said to Moses, "So shall you say to the children of Israel, ‘You have seen that from the heavens I have spoken with you. You shall not make [images of anything that is] with Me. Gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves. An altar of earth you shall make for me, and you shall slaughter beside it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. Wherever I allow my name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.’”
The god of E is less the warrior than that of J. This god is more interested in a covenant, in the mutual embrace between a divinity and his people.

In both J and E, God is obscured. Whether by cloud or by shofar, the people are apparently in an ecstasy yet at a prescribed distance from Moses (and Aaron, in J) and from God. I am reminded of those TV shows where pastors magically heal the crippled or where people speak in tongues. Both J and E describe not witnessed events but whipped-up events. Perhaps this is the kind of religious ceremony they cultivated in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

So, I have fulfilled my promise to offer my own explanation of how the Sinai story originated and developed. Readers will recall that I was asked for such an explanation because I had challenged the way Kuzari proponents characterized the arguments of Kuzari opponents (like me). Those who support Kuzari state that we opponents argue either that
(a) someone along the way made it [i.e., the Sinai story] all up and sold a tall tale to millions about their own ancestors
(b) The story of mass Divine revelation started out as a small scale, untrue, but plausible story. After is [sic] was accepted, it evolved and grew imperceptibly into the full blown version we have today.
My account differs from (a) by separating the origination and circulation of the story from its being “sold” as true and as “scriptural.” The problem with the (a) scenario is that it assumes the story was invented and offered as true at the same time. My account assumes just the opposite, that the story appeared first and was later re-interpreted as something people needed to understand as true and important.

The problem with the (b) scenario is that it assumes the story was taken to be true from the first and then became ever more outlandish over time, yet still regarded as true. The story, in other words, became more and more fantastical, yet it was never regarded as anything other than true. My account of the Sinai story does not assume the story was taken as true. In fact, it really does not matter whether the story was taken as factually true or literally true at the outset. What actually matters is that at some point in time, after the story had been around and known, the story’s implications--if it were true--were articulated and exploited. Sinai was transformed from a story to a teaching, from a narrative component to a theocratic justification.

The Sinai story is neither a hoax nor an evolved entity. The story was invented at some point, and elements of its narrative did “grow” over generations of re-telling and reflection. But what I think really changed over time was the cultural environment that the story circulated within. As that environment developed and underwent changes, it saw the Sinai story anew and saw new aspects of it. It helped ancient stories such as Sinai to become capital-b Biblical.

*  *  *  *  *

Now, we all know that the Kuzari Principle gets invoked to keep option #1 in the conversation and to make it seem reasonably, if not eminently, plausible. As I have shown, however, Kuzari-based arguments have very limited value, at best. I once wrote,
Whether or not we are convinced by Kuzari, we must never ignore or forget what it actually is. It is a principle designed to favor a certain interpretation of Jewish history and texts. It is not evidence and it is not proof. Most of all, it is itself unproven.

outside of the Torah's report of Sinai, there is no positive case for the event. To my knowledge, we have no reason to believe Sinai actually happened other than the Torah's ambiguous description of an event. As thinkers, we have a responsibility to ask what sorts of evidence might reasonably have been produced from the Sinai event in the Torah. For instance, should we expect that other nations might have seen something from afar and reported it? If we say "no" in this case, then perhaps we need to address the problem of Sinai's being an enclosed event. Kuzari downplays other revelations [in other religions, that is] as being "semi-private," yet the Sinai revelation is private in its own way because only the one group has received the revelation. Had Israel, Sinai, and the Amalekites all experienced the same revelation and recorded it, then we would have strong[er] evidence of a most momentous event in human history.
We have come to another concluding point in this ongoing discussion of the Kuzari Principle. To sum up, let me bulletize the important ideas that we have reached through study and discussion:
  • We can construct an historically plausible model of how stories such as Sinai originated and developed. 
  • What's more, this model is more nuanced and realistic than the "evolutionary myth hypothesis" usually ascribed to those who challenge Kuzari-based arguments.
  • Anyone who wants to argue for option #1, or its enhanced version which says that Torah we have today is 100% literally true as it appears, must make the full case for it--including justified explanations of how the Torah was written, when, by whom, where, over how long, for what purposes, and with what relationships to the societies within which this composition took place
  • What's more, this case must go beyond "tradition" or "this is what the sages tell us," because I am asking for the historical case.
If the Kuzari discussion is to continue and be productive, it now falls to Kuzari's champions to delve more deeply into the reality of the Torah--the reality of the Torah as a cultural document that emerged in historical time in certain cultural contexts. I invite and welcome serious responses that defend option #1.

Wednesday Comedy: Mötley Crüe

Went to see Mötley Crüe perform last week. They kind of stank, but I've never been a fan of theirs and I was there more to be out with old friends than to enjoy the music. The singer and lead guitarist were awful, and the sound was way too muddy. However, there was fire and Tommy Lee was upside down for some part of the show.

I have no idea how old the video below is, but I find it pretty funny in a "you fail" kind of way. Scary guys in make-up and women in a cage. Yaaaah!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How Atheists Can Condemn Breivik, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Etc.

A familiar argument--stupid and vicious though it is--from one of our humble moral superiors:
Frankly, I don’t really care whether or not Breivik was a fundamentalist Christian or a fanatical Evolutionist. I don’t want to know why he did it or what went wrong in his life. He has forfeited any right to our curiosity. This man should merely be condemned for such horrific acts of evil: man-made justice will never be enough, but that’s alright, he will face true Divine Justice in the next life however we deal with him for the rest of his life on this planet.

The more interesting point is this: how can any atheist condemn Breivik in terms that can be reconciled with their worldview? If life is meaningless and we face oblivion then nothing really matters – there is no wrong or right, because there is no Good or Evil: even the purpose we forge for ourselves is an act of self-deception if the atheistic worldview is true.
Atheism is not my worldview, or at least it's not all of my worldview. My worldview is based on Western liberal democratic principles. What's more, there is absolutely no contradiction between
The conclusion that there was no god who poofed people into existence.
The proposition that all people deserve civil equality and political representation.
The lesson: Just because you believe in micro-managing, invisible tyrants doesn't mean you possess sole authority to recognize and comment on human evil.

Get over yourselves, already!

US Budget Deficit: I'm Emailing My Representatives Today

Why do our expenses exceed our revenues? Over the past decade or so, the main factors have been tax cuts, wars, recessions, and expanded spending for health care.
A few thoughts on President Obama's and House Speaker Boehner's separate addresses to the nation last night on the budget debate and the debt crisis:
  • Obama came off much better than Boehner. The president explained the situation, summarized the main points of disagreement, advocated for the plan he wants, and exhorted Congress (Congress, not a particular party) to compromise for the greater good. Boehner, on the other hand, was eager to blame Obama and Obama alone. He appeared stern and resigned: this did not seem like a person willing to compromise. His position seemed to be that Obama either had to join him or to lump it.
  • On the plans outlined by the two men: I prefer the plan described by Obama, yet I don't entirely trust the president or the Government to close tax and entitlement loopholes for "the richest Americans" and corporations. I also suspect Boehner's program would most affect and hurt America's poor and needy.
  • What will happen: I have no idea. We are essentially locked into a prisoner's dilemma for gargantuan stakes. I can't see the Tea Party wing approaching anything like a compromise. Congress is so polarized right now. The whole country is. But there's also big, big money at stake for everyone. I'm at a loss to see if anyone will act rationally.
  • What I'll do: I am going to email my representatives and senators. 
Some interesting graphs from the New York Times illustrate the recent history of the deficit:

The accompanying text to the graphs:
The first graph shows the difference between budget projections and budget reality. In 2001, President George W. Bush inherited a surplus, with projections by the Congressional Budget Office for ever-increasing surpluses, assuming continuation of the good economy and President Bill Clinton’s policies. But every year starting in 2002, the budget fell into deficit. In January 2009, just before President Obama took office, the budget office projected a $1.2 trillion deficit for 2009 and deficits in subsequent years, based on continuing Mr. Bush’s policies and the effects of recession. Mr. Obama’s policies in 2009 and 2010, including the stimulus package, added to the deficits in those years but are largely temporary.

The second graph shows that under Mr. Bush, tax cuts and war spending were the biggest policy drivers of the swing from projected surpluses to deficits from 2002 to 2009. Budget estimates that didn’t foresee the recessions in 2001 and in 2008 and 2009 also contributed to deficits. Mr. Obama’s policies, taken out to 2017, add to deficits, but not by nearly as much.

A few lessons can be drawn from the numbers. First, the Bush tax cuts have had a huge damaging effect. If all of them expired as scheduled at the end of 2012, future deficits would be cut by about half, to sustainable levels. Second, a healthy budget requires a healthy economy; recessions wreak havoc by reducing tax revenue. Government has to spur demand and create jobs in a deep downturn, even though doing so worsens the deficit in the short run. Third, spending cuts alone will not close the gap. The chronic revenue shortfalls from serial tax cuts are simply too deep to fill with spending cuts alone. Taxes have to go up.

In future decades, when rising health costs with an aging population hit the budget in full force, deficits are projected to be far deeper than they are now. Effective health care reform, and a willingness to pay more taxes, will be the biggest factors in controlling those deficits.
I hope our political representatives start to live in the world of reality very soon.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Omnipotence and Practical Freedom

Alleged God's alleged omnipotence has been a subject here recently. The discussion on omnipotence has been instructive as an example of how these grand claims for God start to weaken and wither under scrutiny. We're told first that God is omnipotent, and then we're told that even God's power has boundaries. Like it or not, this is a downgrade of God akin to what has happened to God in the face of advances in the biological and physical sciences. The more we learn and establish about reality, the less present and prominent God becomes: that gaps are becoming ever more unworthy of a being we should worship.

But the downgraded God is the one that gets defended in the video below. The case made to the faithful is that God is all-powerful but he can't do what is logically impossible. Therefore, he could not have both given people freedom and forced people to obey him.

I'm not comfortable with the casual assertion that God cannot do what is logically impossible because it is based not on the Bible, not on biblical commentary, and not on religious doctrine. The assertion rather derives from recognizing that true omnipotence is a logically incoherent concept. The assertion, in other words, has only the function of defending a semblance of omnipotence so that people can continue to feel warranted in worshiping the god of the Jewish and Christian bibles. 

To illustrate the problem of the declaration that God cannot do the logically impossible, let's expand the phrasing: God cannot do what we consider to be logically impossible. Now, the implications of the problem rise to the surface:
  • If God cannot do what is logically impossible (the original phrasing), then there are things that are impossible for any being to perform. Any being: plants, animals, gods, and humans. In this sense, all beings are equal before that law. And if we are peers even in a limited sense, then we have cause and reason to state that any individual being can assert independence from the governance and interference of another being.
  • If God cannot do what we consider to be logically impossible, then things get more complicated. On the one hand, we seem to be imposing human logical systems on God. He cannot operate outside of a system of our own making and discovery. On the other hand, if God actually is not constrained by our logic, or our perceptions of logic, then perhaps he can make a universe governed by a super-logic such that square circles and so forth are coherent entities.
  • If God cannot do what is logically impossible, in the first sense, then we can easily imagine a being whose powers either sidestep or transcend those boundaries. A being such a the new one we have imagined would, per the various ontological arguments, be greater and therefore a better candidate for God than the Abrahamic god. 
Claiming that God cannot violate the logically impossible also brings the divine reasoning into question: if God is omnipotent in the way described in the video, wouldn't it have been easy to make the logical move of not placing a prohibited item in the Garden of Eden at all? Without the fruit-one-must-not-eat, Adam and Eve would have still had freedom to act, but they would never have been in danger of doing the very bad thing that wound up condemning all humanity (according to the story, that is). Wouldn't this have been a better way to proceed?

But my larger point in the earlier post and in this one has little to do with the philosophy of omnipotence. I don't actually care that much about omnipotence as a concept. What I care about is that all of this intellectual energy is being put in the service of defending the conclusion that God exists and we should worship him. In the face of mounting evidence and logic, this conclusion is untenable and has been for some time.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Do You Hope That Others Become Atheists?

Make a wish, just leave my brain out of it. OK?
I noted in an earlier post that someone was praying for me to find God. I recently came across another comment in which the writer expressed hope that Person X would be touched by the arguments for God as formulated in the philosophical system of Thomas Aquinas.

Am I wrong to think it's distasteful for one person to desire that another adopt different beliefs and opinions? That sort of desire seems so...intrusive.

How do people feel about the following statements?
  • I hope that you will change your views and become a member of Political Party ABC some day.
  • I hope that you change your mind on the music of Artist Y.
  • I hope that you will be touched by the work of Charitable Organization Z and reconsider donating.
  • I wish that you would reverse your position and become a supporter of Policy P.
  • I want you to be persuaded in favor of my Conviction V.
Maybe I'm making too much of this, or making something out of nothing, but it creeps me out to imagine that someone else could have desires and designs on what I think about things. Someone wants me to have their ideas and opinions, not mine. Someone wants me to be someone else.

I don't see myself as trying to change people's minds, and I hold no particular desire for anyone to think anything different than they already do. I see myself as expressing my own views and making them available to scrutiny and response.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dear Theology: Show Me the Money!

Theologians, I have a very personal, very important thing you are going to do for me: show me the money.
I will sheepishly enter the fray of theology once again, this time to consider points by Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher Edward Feser.

Feser has issues with both intelligent design and atheism, as each departs--albeit in different ways--from the scholastic philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Feser’s gripe with atheism targets the New Atheists. He chides them for dealing with a persistent caricature of Thomistic thought and for refusing to address the real arguments in the proper Thomistic context. Feser says:
Traditionally, the central argument for God’s existence is the cosmological argument, and (also traditionally) the most important versions of that argument are the ones summed up in the first three of Aquinas’s Five Ways. But the typical modern reader is simply not going to understand the Five Ways just by reading the usual two-page excerpt one finds in anthologies. For one thing, the arguments were never intended to be stand-alone, one-stop proofs that would convince even the most hardened skeptic. They are only meant to be brief sketches of arguments the more detailed versions of which the intended readers of Aquinas’s day would have found elsewhere. For another thing, the terminology and argumentative moves presuppose a number of metaphysical theses that Aquinas also develops and defends elsewhere.

So, to understand the Five Ways, the modern reader needs to read something that makes all this background clear, that explains how modern Thomists would reply to the stock objections to the arguments, and so forth. Naturally, I would recommend my own book Aquinas, since it was intended in part precisely as an up-to-date explanation and defense of these arguments, and will provide the reader with a useful survey of what not only Aquinas, but the Thomistic tradition more generally, has said about them.
I sympathize with Feser's point here. To fairly understand and address the arguments of Aquinas, or anyone else, one ought to consider these arguments in their proper context and with sufficient background. I also get Feser's frustration at seeing people argue against a caricature argument rather than the real one.

On this latter problem, Feser appears to understand that atheistic arguments get caricatured by eager would-be opponents all the time. Feser's schtick, in part, is to suggest that the New Atheists are not immune from the ignorance that they ascribe solely to their religious brethren.

Fair enough. Now, let's get a sense of how we might understand Aquinas's arguments properly:
Both critics and defenders of arguments for the existence of God as an Uncaused Cause often assume that such arguments are essentially concerned to explain the universe considered as a whole. That is true of some versions, but not all. For instance, it is not true of Aquinas’s arguments, at least as many Thomists understand them. For the Thomist, you don’t need to start with something grand like the universe in order to show that God exists. Any old thing will do – a stone, a jar of peanut butter, your left shoe, whatever. The existence of any one of these things even for an instant involves the actualization of potencies here and now, which in turn presupposes the activity of a purely actual actualizer here and now. It involves the conjoining of an essence to an act of existence here and now, which presupposes a sustaining cause whose essence and existence are identical. It involves a union of parts in something composite, which presupposes that which is absolutely simple or incomposite. And so forth. (As always, for the details see Aquinas, especially chapter 3.)
Let's see if we can parse this:
  1. Anything in the world can be taken as the starting point in a long, logical chain that leads back to the existence of an uncaused cause.
  2. That chain, going forward, is: sustaining cause (whose essence = existence) [to] act of conjoining an essence to existence [to] actualization of "anything in the world."
  3. That chain, reformulated a bit, is: that which is absolutely simple or incomposite [to] an act of uniting parts in something composite [to] actualization of "anything in the world."
I can only assume that Feser and Aquinas have some backup on the "sustaining cause," on how we know its essence and existence are identical, on how we conceive of absolute simplicity and the like, and the mechanisms by which the act of conjoining and uniting might take place.

It's a safe assumption, of course. Here is Feser with a brief comment on divine simplicity:
the doctrine of divine simplicity is absolutely central to classical theism. To say that God is simple is to say that He is in no way composed of parts – neither material parts, nor metaphysical parts like form and matter, substance and accidents, or essence and existence. Divine simplicity is affirmed by such Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes. It is central to the theology of pagan thinkers like Plotinus. It is the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church, affirmed at the fourth Lateran council and the first Vatican council, and the denial of which amounts to heresy.
Here is Feser again on divine simplicity:
The doctrine of divine simplicity holds that God is in no way composed of parts. Not only is God incorporeal and immaterial, and thus not composed of form and matter, He is also not composed of essence and existence. Rather, His essence is His existence. There is also no distinction within God between any of the divine attributes: God’s eternity is His power, which is His goodness, which is His intellect, which is His will, and so on. Indeed, God Himself just is His power, His goodness, etc., just as He just is His existence, and just is His essence. Talking or conceiving of God, God’s essence, God’s existence, God’s power, God’s goodness, and so forth are really all just different ways of talking or conceiving of one and the very same thing. Though we distinguish between them in thought, there is no distinction at all between them in reality.
To both of these lovely passages, we may pose a very reasonable question: you assert that God is simple and that His existence is his essence, and you talk about the way we conceive of God in our thought and how that's a bit different from what God is "in reality." Pray tell, how in reality do we establish that which know about God? If we can distinguish between our mental model of God and an actual God, and if we can make indicative assertions about God's properties in reality, then from where are we getting this actual, real knowledge? Feser, the good philosopher, has an answer:
Now, for the Thomist...when we predicate goodness, knowledge, power, or what have you of God, we are using language in a way that is analogous to the use we make of it when applied to the created order. It cannot be emphasized too strongly, though, that this has nothing to do with “arguing from analogy” after the fashion of Paley’s design argument; indeed, it is diametrically opposed to Paley’s procedure. It has to do instead with Aquinas’s famous “doctrine of analogy,” which distinguishes three uses of language: Words can be used univocally, in exactly the same sense, as when we say that Fido’s bark is loud and that Rover’s bark is loud. They can be used equivocally, or in completely unrelated senses, as when we say that Fido’s bark is loud and that the tree’s bark is rough. Or they can be used analogously, as when we say that a certain meal was good, that a certain book is good, and that a certain man is good. “Good” is not being used in exactly the same sense in each case, but neither are the senses unrelated, as they are in the equivocal use of “bark.” Rather, there is in the goodness of a meal something analogous to the goodness of a book, and analogous to the goodness of a man, even if it is not exactly the same sort of thing that constitutes the goodness in each case.

For the Thomist, this is the key to understanding how it can be the case that God’s goodness is His power, which is His knowledge, which is His essence, which is His existence. Such a claim would be nonsensical if the terms in question were being used univocally, in exactly the same sense in which we use them when we attribute goodness, power, knowledge, etc. to ourselves (and as they are used in Paleyan “arguments from analogy”). But neither are the senses utterly equivocal. Rather, what we mean is that there is in God something analogous to what we call goodness in us, something analogous to what we call knowledge in us, and so forth; and in God, it is one and the same thing that is analogous to what are in us distinct attributes. From a Thomistic point of view, it is precisely because theistic personalists apply language to God and creatures univocally that they are led to deny divine simplicity and in general to arrive at an objectionably anthropomorphic conception of God.
OK, so we can say/know that God is, for instance, absolutely simple through analogy. Yet we cannot really know God. We can observe that a certain piece of music is sweet and say that God is sweet too, except that God has a God-appropriate sweetness that is utterly different and superior to music-type sweetness. Thus, we draw a nice circle around God and His qualities, a circle that occludes him and keeps Him worthy of worship. Just take anything you think is pretty decent and tell yourself that the God-level type of decency is unfathomably better.

The perceptive reader will notice that I'm starting to think that ultimately we are dealing with very logical and nicely constructed bullshit here. It makes lovely sense and demonstrates the wonderful ingenuity people have. But it's bullshit until we get to an area that is not imaginary, is not occluded, and is not accessible only by analogy. Right now, it appears we always travel down a one-way street from reality to imagination, and we never return.

Perhaps I am being unfair to this philosophizing? Perhaps I am making demands on it that are legitimately beyond its scope? Perhaps I ask of theology what I do not ask of my own primary disciplines, literature and history? No,  don't think so: if God is going to be posited as a real entity, then God needs to be shown to have tetherings in observable reality. If God can be known by people--and not just imagined--then we need to be able to mechanize and computerize this way of knowing. 

Let's read some more Feser on divine simplicity and knowing God:
Precisely because God is simple, though, there is in Aquinas’s view a sense in which we cannot strictly know His essence. For we know things in the strict sense by being able to define them in terms of genus and specific difference, and since God is absolutely simple, there is in Him no distinction between genus and difference, and thus no way to define Him (again, in this technical sense of “define”). God is not merely a unique member of some general class of things; the fact that there is one God is not some metaphysical accident, but an absolute metaphysical and conceptual necessity. But precisely for that reason, precisely because He is so radically unlike anything in the created order, we simply cannot expect to comprehend Him with anything close to the sort of clarity with which we can understand the denizens of that order.
I have had enough already of this theology. God is this, God is not that. Assertion, assertion, assertion, assertion. And though Feser's arguments are well reasoned by themselves, at some point the theology departs from the texts that are the source of God's revelation to humankind. For instance, Feser surprisingly offers "the fact that there is one God." Well, someone forgot to tell this to God because God suggests in the Torah that there are other Gods and he's the top of the line (i.e., henotheism). One may object that I have mis-interpreted the Torah, but it is indisputable that the Bible presents a complex, divergent picture of the divine population:
  • Rachel the matriarch and her family of household gods (teraphim).
  • The idols in the period of the judges (as in Micah's story).
  • The cults of Ba'al and Asherah (various passages in 1 and 2 Kings).
  • The picture of Adonai as king of the gods (Ps 95:3; Ps 82).
In the end what do we have with the theology of Feser and Aquinas? We have an intricate, nuanced, and well-reasoned human system. We have a deep study on the kind of being Feser and Aquinas would feel comfortable worshiping. That's about where it all ends, for there doesn't seem to be much to do with theology outside of saying "Yes, that is it" and moving along to a pew.
Theologian 1: God is simple.

Theologian 2: You don't say!

Theologian 1: He is so simple, like absolutely metaphysically ultimate-type simplicity.

Theologian 2: Wow.

Theologian 1: And yet, he is inscrutable in his essence. Totally beyond our mental abilities to comprehend.

Theologian 2: So true, and based on centuries of really intelligent people working out the logic of it all.

Theologian 1: So...we're agreed? God's really really unimaginably simple?

Theologian 2: Yes. I am with you one hundred and one percent.

Theologian 1: Mmm. Great. Now what?

Theologian 2: Let us pray....
I said before that I sympathize with Feser's point on how too many atheists don't know enough theology and religious philosophy--and they don't know the real arguments of Aquinas, in particular. I get that point. The scientists, philosophers, ID proponents and all the rest have closets full of straw men. We all do, and that's a problem we need to monitor constantly.

But perhaps Feser and the philosophers can do a better job of communicating where all the philosophizing is supposed to go. Great as Feser's logic and style of argumentation are, I don't see any particular grounding in what we might vulgarly call "meatspace." Feser and philosophy have no obligations whatsoever to articulate such a grounding, but it seems to me that they need to do like Jerry Maguire and "Show me the money!"

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wednesday Comedy: Daniel Tosh

I confess to being a fan of the Comedy Central program Tosh.0, a clip show featuring bizarre internet videos interspersed with commentary and gags by Daniel Tosh.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Theodicy Is an End to Theology

I suggest you invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole.

Before the advent of Darwin's evolutionary theory, and the scientific and cultural revolution it inspired, theology was the height of intellectual activity. To be a theologian was to be a noble philosopher, an intimate to God's word and mind, a communicator of the divine nature. More than anything, the theologian reconciled God to humanity.

Today, however, apologists and their followers must perform all sorts of intellectual and emotional gyrations to maintain the integrity of the good-God concept. If you want an all-powerful, all-good god to worship, then you're going to have to squint your eyes just so and contort your body in just the right way. Theologians have almost replaced lexicographers as the harmless drudges of our age, as fewer people take theologians or God very seriously. Unfortunately, the Abrahamic religions maintain a core of government-minded practitioners who would have us all change our infidel ways under threat of sword. Were it not for those who take theology and God too seriously, the theologians could do their work in peace and the rest of the world would move ahead unperturbed.

The real difference between the theologians and the zealots is that the former group are more conflicted in their woo. They see that in the real world, the divinities and the holy books don't live up to the hype. They need to fit a square God into a round reality. Hence, theology. But theology cannot be complete unless and until it formulates a real theodicy, an explanation for the existence of evil if God is all-loving and all-powerful. J.F. Mackie expressed the problem this way:
In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions: the theologian, it seems, at once must adhere and cannot consistently adhere to all three.
Uncommon Descent's resident apologist Barry Arrington sheepishly tries to lead the hope-and-faith crowd down the correct path for understanding why God makes (or allows) terrible things happen to earnest believers, casual adherents, and unbelievers alike. God is no moral monster, says Arrington. Neither is the divinity unaware of what will befall any individual.

What is the correct path, the true approach, according to Arrington?
Evil never accomplishes some great cosmic purpose. God hates it, and in no sense does he intend it so that he can use it to accomplish his purposes. God did not intend for Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. He did not intend for Potipher’s wife falsely to accuse him of rape. He hated the evil visited upon Joseph. It is true that God worked in Joseph’s life to help him overcome the circumstances into which he had been thrust by the evil acts of others. But most emphatically God did not “desire” those evil acts (or, far worse, specifically cause them to happen) to accomplish a greater good. He accomplished the good in spite of those acts, not because of them.
Of course! God only does the good stuff! People only do the bad stuff, and God only does the good stuff. Unfortunately, in 1955 Mackie disposed of Arrignton's proposed solution:
I should ask this: if God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good? If there is no logical impossibility in a man's freely choosing the good on one, or on several, occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion. God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong: there was open to him the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.
Mackie continues:
If it is replied that this objection is absurd, that the making of some wrong choices is logically necessary for freedom, it would seem that 'freedom' must here mean complete randomness or indeterminacy, including randomness with regard to the alternatives good and evil, in other words that men's choices and consequent actions can be "free " only if they are not determined by their characters. Only on this assumption can God escape the responsibility for men's actions; for if he made them as they are, but did not determine their wrong choices, this can only be because the wrong choices are not determined by men as they are. But then if freedom is randomness, how can it be a characteristic of will? And, still more, how can it be the most important good? What value or merit would there be in free choices if these were random actions which were not determined by the nature of the agent?

I conclude that to make this solution plausible two different senses of 'freedom' must be confused, one sense which will justify the view that freedom is a third order good, more valuable than other goods would be without it, and another sense, sheer randomness, to prevent us from ascribing to God a decision to make men such that they sometimes go wrong when he might have made them such that they would always freely go right.
Arrington's theodicy falls, then, as a matter of logic. The square peg does not fit into the round hole.

Yet the most troubling aspect of the whole discussion is the argument that underlies and justifies the practice of theodicy itself. Here, Arrington spouts poetic pleasantries about the kind of idea he wants to worship:
God is powerful enough to combine apparent contradictions in his person. He is three, yet he is only one. He is both immanent and transcendent. He is sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent; yet despite the evil that exists in the universe he created, he is also omni-benevolent. It never ceases to amaze me that skeptics are surprised when they are unable to fit God into neat human categories. But if we could understand God completely, would we not be gods ourselves? I know I am no god, so I am unsurprised to find that I cannot comprehend God in his fullness or understand fully how such contradictions can be combined in him. Nevertheless, I am quite certain they are.
Arrington characterizes skeptics as incorrectly as possible. We are not at all surprised that God doesn't fit into categories of evidence, logic, and reason--this is the point we're making!

Arrington's picture of the deity is sweet. It sounds ducky: God is virile and complex, accessible and sublime. He actually is the best of the best. But what real evidence is Arrington's picture based on? Writings of other theologians? Holy writ?

How can the rest of the world know that his picture of the supreme being corresponds to the truth? How can anyone know that Arrington's picture of the creator god is better than that of other apologists and theologians?

We can't know. Ultimately, Arrington is making stuff up based on his personal view of the world. Square peg God doesn't have to fit into round hole reality because square peg God only has to fit into the square hole in Arrington's imagination.

Thursday, July 07, 2011


This past weekend, I felt confident I would run a full 10K (6.2 miles) in a decent time. I had trained to finish. The last four weeks or so saw me doing long runs at or about 10K. During this time I also ran intervals and lifted weights. So, I saw myself as basically in shape, just a bit heavy.

Well, I stank up the race. I ran a decent two miles in the sun and humidity before becoming totally fatigued. I wound up walking most of the middle part of the course. I ran the last mile or so at a good clip and finished strong, but otherwise I'm totally bummed at my performance. Was I not really ready to run the race? Was the heat and humidity too much for me? Had I not tapered in the final week like I should have?

My thinking is that I should have focused more on hydration in the final 1-2 weeks of training. I should have been less strenuous in my lifting routine. Finally, I should have refrained from running intervals on the Friday before the race. So yeah, I'm bummed. But I can make peace with a failure and move on. In fact, I'm looking forward to redeeming myself in another race.

I share this reflection because it highlights the difference between me and the depressives I live with, my wife and eight-year-old daughter. It's taken me a long time to figure out what depression is (and is not) but I think I now have a decent handle on it. Basically, depression is an inability to function as one would be able to otherwise. It's rooted in being overwhelmed and over-stressed. It's marked by a lingering sense that there's nothing that can be done about a certain set of circumstances. It's not just feeling personally helpless but feeling oppressed by conditions such that no one can make them better.

An example, an evaluation of my eight-year-old revealed that she feels depressed about her three-year-old brother's autism. She knows that when he gets upset, the whole house is affected. It gets stressful and loud, and it's hard to smile. This situation affects my daughter profoundly. It's not just mood but ability to focus and to engage life as it happens. Often, she feels that the situation will not get better, that there's nothing she or any of us can really do to fix things.

A few depression quotes:
"Depression is the inability to construct a future."
-- Rollo May

"If depression is creeping up and must be faced, learn something about the nature of the beast: You may escape without a mauling."
-- Dr. R. W. Shepherd

"A lot of people don't realize that depression is an illness. I don't wish it on anyone, but if they would know how it feels, I swear they would think twice before they just shrug it."
-- Jonathan Davis

"That's the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it's impossible to ever see the end. The fog is like a cage without a key."
-- Elizabeth Wurtzel
I cannot speak first-hand about the experiences and thinking that my wife and daughter go through when they are depressed. I have a hard time relating to what I think is going on with them because even when I feel "helpless," I often can make peace with the situation and find another outlet for balancing myself. I have only rarely felt as though I wasn't able to lock in on an activity to get my swagger back.

Making peace is what I want for my wife and daughter. I am optimistic that with the help of therapy, both of them will find ways to make peace with depression. I don't think the depression will ever fully go away for either of them. It's part of the hard-wiring of their brains, brought out by particular stresses in our lives. Yet all of us can learn to live with it, if not embrace it. We can learn to recognize it and not be overwhelmed by it.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

We're American: The Song So Far (Q2)

I missed my second quarter music selection! Late though it is, here is Gran Funk Railroad for some bare-chested, cowbellin' musical fun.

Sometimes I wish I had come of age in the seventies.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Independence and Sober Reflection

Benjamin West, William Penn's Treaty with the Indians when he founded the Province of Pennsylvania in North America, 1771. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

This, from one of my Internet heroes, John McIntyre:
The Fourth of July, particularly in a year when a presidential campaign is beginning to lumber toward cascades of hoopla and distortions, is a time when the exceptionalists tend to give the “city on a hill” line a workout. Aspiration is a good thing. The national ideals are a good thing. Attempting to live up to them is a good thing. But it is also a salutary thing to recollect, amid the gassy exhalations of the holiday, that in our role as an example to the rest of unenlightened humankind, we have sometimes made a shoddy job of it.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Is This Then a Touch?

I have waited too long to return to reading that great American, Walt Whitman. We are now on Page 32 of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the 1855 (first) edition.
The ring of alarm-bells . . . . the cry of fire . . . . the whirr of swift-streaking engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and colored lights,
The steam-whistle . . . . the solid roll of the train of approaching cars;
The slow-march played at night at the head of the association,
They go to guard some corpse . . . . the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.

I hear the violincello or man's heart's complaint,
And hear the keyed cornet or else the echo of sunset.

I hear the chorus . . . . it is a grand-opera . . . . this indeed is music!

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the trained soprano . . . . she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip;
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches unnamable ardors from my breast,
It throbs me to gulps of the farthest down horror,
It sails me . . . . I dab with bare feet . . . . they are licked by the indolent waves,
I am exposed . . . . cut by bitter and poisoned hail,
Steeped amid honeyed morphine . . . . my windpipe squeezed in the fakes of death,
Let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

To be in any form, what is that?
If nothing lay more developed the quahaug and its callous shell were enough.

Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can stand.

Is this then a touch? . . . . quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,
My flesh and blood playing out lightning, to strike what is hardly different from myself,
On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs,
Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip,
Behaving licentious toward me, taking no denial,
Depriving me of my best as for a purpose,
Unbuttoning my clothes and holding me by the bare waist,
Deluding my confusion with the calm of the sunlight and pasture fields,
We begin the page surrounded in sound as the din of the city becomes majestic passion of the opera. The poet is ecstatically consumed yet ever observing how the experience feels.

The poet considers himself and how he differs from, say, "the quahaug and its callous shell." He is a conductor of extraordinary sensitivity.

I'm not clear on what "this" refers to in "Is this then a touch?" Perhaps the reference is to the poem itself or the act of creating poetry. The "this" becomes figured as the motions of intimates and lovers. More than anything, the poet seems to want to describe what it's like at the limits of human sensation.