Thinking of God

This argument,
so brief,
yet so enduring,
makes nothing of sense,
and everything of thought.

Its conceptual point
of departure
is God
as mere idea-
the idea of:
a being
than which nothing greater
can be
conceived-
and moves on to
its referent,
the reality that transcends
the idea that it entails,
God Himself.

It proceeds
going backwards:
a clever move
to catch
the “No”-theist
in a merciful trap:
Think it as
not-real;
then it must needs be
a thought only ….
and yet,
a thought of the greatest conceivable
(being) that does not be,
which therefore is not
the greatest conceivable
being as such.

Could such a thought
proceed from
a saint
Anselm of Canterbury
thought so,
and, please God,
presented it
with solid conviction,
that it was both
proof
of God
and
(of) answered prayer.

-RDG

The Pro-Life Movement

Recently (May 31, 2009) a man shot and killed George Tiller in the midst of a church service. Tiller was one of the few doctors in America that performed partial birth abortions and he was also consistently in the center of the abortion debate. Because Tiller was such a high-profile person in the abortion services community, and he was shot dead in a church, there has been a lot of media attention paid to the event. This attention has revealed something very telling about the current pro-life movement – we are failing miserably.

Before justifying such a claim I want to state some of my background assumptions via a quick argument seeking to establish that both Tiller’s killing and abortions are immoral. I will then explain why I think the pro-life movement is failing. Finally, I will conclude by presenting the strategy that I think the pro-life movement should endorse and demonstrate what that strategy looks like in action by arguing for the truth of some of the premises in the following argument.

  1. Personhood begins at conception. That means from the earliest stage of pregnancy we are dealing with a human person and should treat him or her accordingly.
  2. The unjustified killing of a human person is morally wrong.
  3. Almost all abortions are instances of unjustifiably killing a human person.
  4. Therefore, almost all abortions are morally wrong.

Though this is slightly off topic, I should point out that according to the above argument the killing of George Tiller was morally wrong. I am perfectly content with such a view since I take all instances of vigilantism as being morally inappropriate. On my view, killing Tiller is not just morally wrong but also pragmatically wrong. If one wants to see abortion more highly restricted (or eliminated altogether), killing abortionists won’t help that matter. If anything, it makes it more unlikely.

With the above argument in mind, I want to describe why I think the pro-life movement is failing and what should be done to correct it. First, why it is failing. I take as a representative sample of media coverage a recent column on the BBC News website (Anti-abortion and violence in the US). In this column, author Nick Triggle notes what he takes to be the general tenor of the abortion debate in the US. First he notes that quite-popular President Obama “was heckled by anti-abortion activists over his decision earlier this year to lift restrictions on funding for abortion.” He then notes that such heckling and protests are quite common in the US and its commonplace is, at least, partly attributable to the “hundreds of religious stations across the country.” He continues, “the level of involvement of religious groups” is vastly different in the US than in the UK. Finally, and most tellingly, he says “With half the US population regular church-goers, everything from sexual abstinence and euthanasia campaigns to the abortion debate has been dominated by religious groups.”

Now I don’t have a problem with Triggle’s article. In fact, I think his analysis is spot on. What I do have a problem with is that the pro-life movement has allowed itself to be branded as a religious movement. If you go to any number of websites that have reported on Tiller’s killing and look at just a few of the comments you’ll see a frequent theme. You’ll see many pro-choice supporters accusing “pro-lifers” as being close-minded and trying to force their religious beliefs on the rest of America. Sadly, the responses by those same pro-lifers support such an idea.

But don’t get me wrong; I am proud that most people in the pro-life movement are Christians. That religious groups are the primary reason this is still an issue in America today is a good thing. That means we are still fighting for the oppressed and willing to defend the defenseless. However, we do not live in a world that accepts our authority as their authority. Religious groups cannot make a religious argument to convince the world that abortion is morally wrong. We must give them arguments with premises that they can accept on their own terms. We can’t allow the fact that the pro-life movement is dominated by “religious groups” to become a fact that the pro-life argument is a religious argument.

There is simply no need to give a religious argument for the immorality of abortion. Of course, these types of arguments are available, but they will only convince those that already accept that religion as true and authoritative. Most in America today do not (even many of those that refer to themselves as Christians) accept Christianity as true and authoritative. Here one might ask what type of argument should we give, if not a religious argument. What would a non-religious argument look like? Here is an example of one, very simple, argument that all religious and non-religious people can use to make the case for the life of the unborn.

  1. Either the unborn are human persons or not.
  2. If the unborn are not human persons, then no justification for an abortion is needed (just like we don’t need justifying reasons for removing tonsils).
  3. If the unborn are human persons, then the justification typically given for an abortion will never be morally adequate (just because an individual is too busy or too poor to take care of another human person does not mean that individual is justified in killing that human person).

This focuses the debate on the thing that matters most. Are the unborn human persons? I believe they are, but not even that belief depends upon a religious assumption. Why think the unborn are human persons? This can be boiled down to one general idea.

  • The location of a thing is never a morally salient feature of that thing.

If one should think of a newborn as a human person, then there is no good reason to not think of a pre-born as a human person. Frankly, it is absurd to think that a few inches determine the moral status of a person. To believe that the fetus is magically transformed from non-person to person by traveling down the birth canal is rationally unacceptable. The fetus just prior to birth is just as much a human as the infant just after birth. Its location is irrelevant.

Further, there are no good reasons to cut off personhood at some earlier point in the pregnancy either. Distinctions based upon trimester are purely arbitrary ways for people to refer to general stages of development. Almost everything that a person needs to develop into a grown human being is present from conception. The only additional things needed are external. They are 1) an appropriate environment and 2) to not be killed. But this is just as true for you and me as it is for the unborn. If you kill me, then I will obviously not continue grow as a human being. But even if you just remove me from an environment conducive to my continued growth (e.g. by stripping off my clothes and placing me outside during an Alaskan winter), then I too will die. That the unborn depends upon the appropriate environment to live does not mean it is not a human person. If you don’t kill me, then I will continue to grow as a human person grows. If you don’t kill the unborn, they will do the same.

Now of course much more can be said in favor of the pro-life position. This is intended to be a very rough and ready type of argument that, for our purposes, simply demonstrates how the pro-life movement should advance its cause. You should notice that nothing I have said against the morality of abortion has depended upon a religious argument. Not once did I appeal to the Bible or to church teaching. If the pro-life movement begins to advance these types of arguments, then we will have a much greater shot at convincing the general public that abortion is morally wrong. Even if that does not result in Roe being overturned (though I in fact think it could), it will prevent a great number of women from choosing to have an abortion. But as long as the pro-life movement relies upon religious arguments we will continue to be marginalized in the public sphere. Our arguments are compelling and their arguments are not. In order to progress the pro-life agenda we must use the compelling arguments and not ones that rely upon a religious text that a vast number of Americans don’t accept as authoritative.

If you’d like more resources for developing this type of argument I’ll make two recommendations. The first is Stand to Reason’s Bio Ethics page. At STR’s page you’ll find a wealth of good reasoning about the abortion issue (as well as many of today’s other pressing ethical issues). The second is Life Training Institute, which is run by Scott Klusendorf, a former member of Stand to Reason. (I’m indebted to Greg Koukl of STR and Klusendorf for the formulation of the above argument.) Klusendorf just published a book dealing with the abortion issue called, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture (this links to the book’s website). You can get his book from that site or from Amazon at The Case for Life.

Grading papers

Last week I received this semester’s first stack of papers to grade. I’ve set a goal of grading two papers a day. At that pace I’ll be finished by the time we resume class after Reading Week and I won’t want to kill myself for trying to grade so many at once.

So far, I’m pleased with the quality of papers. They are for my Philosophy of Religion class, so it’s a subject I care about quite a lot. At this point in their educational journey I’m not expecting them to be all that original in what they have to say, but do expect them to say it well. What really makes me happy is to see someone carefully present an argument and then nicely evaluate it. It might be their own argument or that of someone else. But either way a good philosophy paper needs an argument and it needs a good examination of it. Most have done this, some have not. 

One thing that has been encouraging is that I’m starting to notice just how much I’ve learned over the years. It’s easy to be so caught up in what you’re doing in school that you don’t actually realize you’re learning quite a bit. For example, I had one student cite an author as advocating a certain position but because I’m familiar with the book, I knew he only said that in the introduction to his book while explaining various other views. It wasn’t until chapter 3 that he advocated a more nuanced, but similar, position.

This whole process makes me think back to my time as a 3rd or 4th year student and the types of papers I turned in to my professors. I get the feeling that some of my students are turning in work that is better than the work I turned in at that stage. That is exciting.

This post was a bit random (with a lot of rambling), but hey it’s what I was thinking about and I couldn’t fit it into 140 characters for Twitter. By the way, this is my first blog post with the tag ‘school’ indicating not my own education but to my educating others. Wow.

Thoughts on ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ 1

Many people I know have asked for my thoughts about the ‘Emergent’ church movement and I have had little to tell them. I know there is a difference between the ‘Emerging’ church and the ‘Emergent’ church, but can’t really figure out what that is. I know that some who consider themselves Emergent deny that we can have truth about anything, but not all make such a claim. I know some identify themselves as being fully postmodern, but also know few people really know what ‘postmodern’ means. I also know that many within the movement wouldn’t be too happy with my liberal use of ‘know’.

So, I have resolved to do a bit of reading in my almost non-existent free time. Over the next few months I am going to try to read a chapter a week of one of the more influential books in the Emergent movement – Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren is considered by many to be at the forefront of this movement so I think it’d be good to start with his book.

Today I’d like to offer a few thoughts about John Franke’s forward to the book. I disagree with much of what Franke has written elsewhere, but for the most part, his introduction was pretty unobjectionable. I should mention that I am skeptical about whether anyone really is as postmodern as is claimed. I think the same worry is going to be true of the Emergent movement in general and we get a glimpse of that in Franke’s forward.

Franke explains that McLaren’ writes in a way more to keep a conversation going rather than as a conversation stopper. Part of the complaint against many classical conservatives and liberals is their commitment to classical foundationalism and its claim of certainty. Franke writes that this commitment to certainty was motivated by a desire to reconstruct knowledge “by rejecting ‘premodern’ notions of authority and replacing them with uncontestable beliefs accessible to all individuals” (“Forward,” pg. 11).  McLaren, with his “generous orthodoxy” isn’t after such certainty. Instead he wants to encourage open and honest dialogue about important issues concerning the Christian faith. In this spirit, A Generous Orthodoxy “does not so much specify a particular point or position as it establishes a spacious territory defined by certain distinct boundaries in which there is space to live, move, and breathe while exploring the wonders and mysteries of the faith” (“Forward,” pg. 13-14). Instead of seeking after certainty concerning specifics of the faith, a generous orthodoxy operates within certain parameters and does so with an openness to anything that falls within those parameters.

This sounds fine and dandy at first glance, but after a bit more reflection we’ll see that Franke is actually helping himself to what he’s previously bemoaned. Having the freedom to explore different tenants of the Christian faith is great and all, but Franke fails to realize that the parameters in which he thinks we should do that exploring are determined through arguments that have a definite conclusion. Franke focuses on the freedom within those parameters, but the parameters themselves have been determined by a reliance on aspects of the very foundationalism that he decries. The conversation stops at the very parameters themselves, and if they do not, then Franke has to be willing to allow for a much more liberal versions of Christianity that may reject some, or all, of traditional orthodoxy-defining beliefs.

I have a feeling that many of the Emergent writers implicitly help themselves to things they explicitly reject. We’ll see in the coming weeks if my feeling is accurate about McLaren.

My Dissertation Prospectus

This morning I had the pleasure to send off the final copy of my dissertation prospectus to my advisory committee. It took me much longer to write than I thought it would, but considering there were some major changes in the dissertation’s aim, that isn’t too unexpected. 

For now, the title of dissertation is “A Rational Problem of Evil: The Coherence of Christian Doctrine and the Free Will Defense.” If you’d like to read a bit more about the project, I’ve posted a copy of the prospectus on the “Research” page of this blog.

Barry Bonds and Bad Arguments

Just in case you’ve been under a rock the last couple of years, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding Barry Bonds. He recently hit his 755th home run which ties him with Hank Aaron for the all time mark, and will soon hit 756. These last few weeks, listening to sports talk radio has been a virtual smorgasbord of bad reasoning. Since I’m about to start teaching a critical reasoning class in the fall, I thought I’d take a few minutes to highlight a few examples of bad reasoning that have been quite prevalent lately.

On ESPN Radio, I recently heard Amy Lawrence make an argument that went basically like this:

“Barry Bonds has never failed a steroids test. There is no proof that Bonds used steroids, so you can’t tell me that he did. In fact, if you say Bonds did use, then you’ve got to also say that everyone else used. We don’t have evidence that Alex Rodriguez didn’t use steroids so we can’t know that he didn’t.”

Now I don’t want to just sit here and bash on Lawrence because a lot of other people have made similar arguments, but this one is particularly bad because of the second argument about Rodriguez inserted at the end. Here’s why her argument is bad on a variety of levels.

  1. Lawrence assumes that the only type of evidence is scientific evidence. If I think you’ve cheated in some way, then, according to Lawrence, the only way I can prove it is if there is a scientific test I can administer that’ll come back with certain results. The problem with this should be obvious. We make judgments all the time without scientific evidence. A couple gets divorced because one has good reason to think the other is cheating. No scientific evidence needed. A parent grounds the oldest child for tormenting the younger one. No scientific evidence needed. In both cases, all that is rationally needed is good reasons to think the spouse is cheating or the older child is being a brat.

    Now, are there other types of evidence available that gives us good reason to think Barry Bonds cheated? Of course. First, just look at the guy. The old eye test does wonders. Men over 35 don’t magically grow larger heads. He doesn’t just have a more muscular body, his head has actually gotten bigger (and you just thought it was his ego). That’s part of what human growth hormone (HGH) does to you. Secondly, there’s a book, The Game of Shadows, that details his usage with transcripts from informants, patterns of usage, dosages, etc. that clearly indicate he was using. Of course, the authors could’ve made it all up, but I haven’t heard one word from someone contradicting the evidence they provide. Finally, and the most damning in my opinion, is the fact that he admitted to using steroids under oath. Even if he didn’t know “the cream” and “the clear” were steroids (both of which he admitted to using), that doesn’t mean he didn’t use them. (“I’m sorry officer, I didn’t know this grass I was smoking is marijuana” usually doesn’t work.) The question shouldn’t be if he was using steroids, it should be if he knew he was using steroids.

    All this doesn’t just apply to Lawrence, these are all mistakes many people make when discussing the Barry Bonds and steroids issue. Next we’ll see a less common mistake (less common because it’s much worse).

  2. Amy Lawrence suggests that if we say Bonds used steroids without “evidence,” then there’s no way to prevent someone from saying the same thing about Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod). This is a really bad argument because it boils down to nothing more than an argument from ignorance. The argument goes something like this:

    “We don’t know that A-Rod didn’t use steroids. Therefore, we can’t say that he didn’t.”

    In my critical reasoning class I teach the students that one way of refuting an argument is by logical analogy. Pretty much, you come up with a different argument that has the same structure that leads to an obviously wrong conclusion. So, let’s do that with Lawrence’s bad argument about A-Rod.

    “We don’t know that giant invisible martians don’t live on the moon and control everything we do. Therefore, we can’t say that giant invisible martians don’t live on the moon and control everything we do.”

    Same argument structure, crazy conclusion. So, we’ve seen that each part of her argument is flawed, but there’s another problem with the big picture.

  3. In arguing about Bonds, Lawrence sets up a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is an argument that tries to make a person choose 1 of 2 options when there is really more than those 2 options. Here’s how she committed this fallacy.

    Option 1: We don’t say Bonds used steroids.
    Option 2: We do say he used steroids & have to say the same thing about A-Rod.

    Lawrence leaves out the fact that we can say Bonds used steroids even though we don’t have a positive steroid test because we have other good reasons to say he did use them. The reasons we can say Bonds used steroids do not apply to A-Rod (doesn’t look abnormally large or have a growing head, but instead looks like a professional athlete would look given his workout regimen, there’s no detailed book giving other reasons to think he used, and he’s never admitted to unknowingly using in court).

So, thank you Amy Lawrence for providing me with many great examples of poor reasoning. After first hearing these really bad arguments I thought I’d just put in a CD whenever you fill in for someone, but now I think I’ll stay tuned in to see what other examples of poor reasoning you provide.

A brief update

Okay, so it’s been almost a month since I’ve posted last…oops. Things have been really crazy for me and the wife, but in a good way. In may we spent one weekend in Chicago, one in Springfield, MO, one in San Francisco and one in Sacramento. Wow! I’m now teaching an intro to philosophy class at OU and it’s going to kick my butt. It meets Monday through Friday, so I have to prepare lectures every night! I hope to get a few days of lectures prepared in advance, and then can get back to blogging. Here are some neat pics from our trips.

From Travel

The pic above was taking at a really neat coffee shop on Michigan Ave in Chicago. I tried to convince the owner that he should open one up in Norman, but I’m not sure if he bought the idea.

From Travel

This is, in my opinion, the best used bookstore ever. Green Apple Books has an amazing selection of books, and they are very organized. Within their philosophy section, they had all sorts of sub-sections. It was great, I got to just jump right past all that continental stuff! Click the ‘travel’ link underneath either picture to go to my album with lots more pics from our trip.

A Problem of Hell?

I was talking with a good friend (his website) last night about the problem of evil and how it relates to Christian theology. I’m starting to think that an adequate answer (solution?) to the problem of evil has to rely on specific Christian resources. For those unfamiliar with the problem, I’ll briefly state it. It seems that the following are inconsistent (either logically, or at least probably inconsistent):

  1. God is omnipotent
  2. God is wholly good
  3. Evil exists

If God is wholly good he would want to eliminate evil and if he is omnipotent he could eliminate evil, but yet we experience (or hear of) evil all the time. I think this poses the greatest challenge to Christian theism, but also think there are good responses to the problem.

In the philosophical discussions it is often tempting to try to resolve this problem without appealing to specific Christian doctrines, but I think that is a mistake. There aren’t many who believe in a God that is just omnipotent and wholly good and know nothing else of him or his plan for this world. So, it seems that the problem is directed toward Christian theists and so it should be acceptable to appeal to certain Christian understandings of justice and eschatology in giving an answer to the problem.

During our discussion last night my friend pointed out that many people are glad they exist even if they have experienced a great amount of evil. I think that is a really important thing to keep in mind. Sure, person X may have experienced a lot of evil, but if X thinks it is better for him to have existed than not, is the problem of evil still as pressing? I wonder how many people would say they really wish they were never born. (On a side note, it would be interesting to study the psychology of a suicidal person. Do they wish they were never born, or just that they don’t want to go on living? I think an answer to that will play a role.) As I was reflecting about last night’s conversation I began to wonder how this would fit into the Christian’s understanding of hell.

I guess if I’m willing to appeal to Christian theology to respond to the problem of evil I also need to deal with difficult parts of that same Christian theology. I’m not exactly sure what the orthodox understanding of hell is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not literally fire & brimstone. Either way, it’s not a place that anyone would want to be (regardless of their jokes about it). No matter how much evil a person inflicts on earth, eternal punishment for that temporal evil seems to be a bit of an overkill. At some point, would it actually have been better for the person in hell to not have existed? Even if people experiencing evil on earth still are glad they exist, would the person in hell feel the same way? Is the fact that they are in hell because they rejected God and not because they committed evils relevant? My intuitions lead me to think they would not want to have existed at all instead of spending eternity in hell, but that’s just my intuitions talking. This, of course, leads to the discussion about whether a wholly good being could annihilate his creation and still be wholly good. The two questions are closely connected, but I just don’t know what to say about either at this point.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Maybe a better understanding of what hell is (and not just what it isn’t) would help resolve the problem, but I’m not sure.

Arguments, Truth, and the Church

At some point we all need to learn how to evaluate that which we believe and ascertain whether or not our beliefs are worth holding. In talking with a friend a while back, we decided that many within the Church have a general distrust of reflection and critical evaluation and so never examine their own beliefs. This is quite an unfortunate phenomenon and has especially troubled me the last few months. More recently, I’ve come to believe that one of the major causes for this sad state of affairs is fear. Many people are afraid that they are wrong and that the positions they hold will be exposed as fallacious. Exacerbating the problem is the place of importance these positions typically hold. However, all is not lost. This fear of being wrong (or of argumentation in general) can be removed once people begin to understand that it is a good thing to discover the ways in falsehood has crept into our belief system.First, we need to have a better understanding of what an argument is. When I talk of arguments or argumentation, I most certainly don’t mean the screaming and yelling matches that you had with your siblings (hopefully just when you were younger!). What I do mean is the methodical laying out and examination of one’s positions. This alone can resolve tensions between two apparently different positions. If you tell me, “God is omnipotent and so can create square circles” and I say “God is omnipotent and yet cannot create square circles” you are likely to accuse me of not really believing in God’s omnipotence. But, once I present my argument in a more structured way, you will likely see why I affirm God’s omnipotence and yet deny his ability to create square circles.Now that we’ve seen what I’m not referring to, we can talk about some tips for considering other people’s arguments. First, it is imperative that you listen to the person state his position and remain open to the idea that you are wrong and not him. This humility is likely to create an environment where you are actually trying to understand his position and not just look for a way to squeeze in your thoughts about why he is wrong. Second, learn how to state the other position in a way that is acceptable to the other person. This forces you to ‘get’ their position. Once I understood why someone would be a Calvinist, I stopped thinking they’re just crazy. If you can only restate the position in a ridiculous or question-begging way, then you’re not actually dealing with that position but instead a caricature of something someone holds dear. I think these are simple practices that we should always try to keep in mind no matter who we are dealing with, but I think they are mandatory when discussing issues within the Church. Christ prayed for his Church to be one, and today we are far from that. As we obtain truth about God and his relationship with us, we will see denominational differences begin to fade.You’ve no doubt noticed a lot of talk about ‘truth’. At this point you might even ask why should we bother with this outdated notion of truth. Why not just keep on marching along in what we already know? Well, because if we deny that there is truth that we can obtain, it seems we also deny that we have the ability to know God and about him. John Polkinghorne has said, “If God is the god of truth, then the more truth we have, the greater understanding we have; the more we are learning about God.” Understanding that knowing truth is knowing God will do wonders to alleviate the fear of being wrong. Why is that? Because being ‘right’ is just simply overrated. Once you know that you’re right (or think you know), you no longer need to learn any more about your own positions or about those of others. If you are humble enough to recognize that you might be wrong, then you’ll continue to seek the deeper understanding that ultimately results in a deeper knowledge of God.Not only should we be open to the idea of being wrong, if we come to learn that we indeed are wrong, we should rejoice. False beliefs ultimately lead us astray from the God of truth, and so we should be glad when we are able to remove them from our lives. So, if in reading this you find that I’m mistaken about certain things, great! Please, take the time to point out my errors to me so I may seek to remove them and find that which may appropriately take their place. Blessings.

Can I Ever Know?

 I seek but do not find that which plagues my mind

Night after night, book after book, I’ve searched it all and have nowhere to look

Most simply say, “close your eyes and walk by faith”,

but my mind won’t stop racing

my mind won’t stop racing

 

Can I ever know? Or is my search pointless?

Can I ever know? Are my efforts fruitless?

Is it a waste of time? I long for answers so hard to find.

My soul is weary, my soul is weary

 

Though it can cause tremendous pain, the ability to choose is a beautiful thing

His knowledge and our freedom combine? That understanding so hard to define

Most simply say, “close your eyes and walk by faith”,

but my heart won’t stop bleeding

my heart won’t stop bleeding

 

Can I ever know? Or is this search in vain?

Can I ever know? Will he stop the pain?

Is it a waste of time? I long for answers so hard to find

My soul is weary, my soul is weary

 

The final answers I may not discover, but light from dark I can discern

His truth is there to know, when I give of myself and begin to learn

I must respond and say, “use your mind and search for truth”,

And I know he’ll guide me

I know he’ll guide me