Sunday, July 27, 2014

Finishing Up My Thoughts

Sorry about my last post I suffered from an acute case of blogpostthoughtinterruptictis, and since that post I've been on vacation in Ohio and Michigan so I haven't had a chance to finish my thoughts.

I've talked about how foundational epistemology is dangerous both in my previous post and in this post where I talked about Descartes' philosophy of cogito ergo sum.  If we're to use foundational epistemology, the foundation has to be rock-solid.

This brings me back to the relationship between epistemology, conspiracy theories, and the Jesus myth theories.  Much of my interest in the topic of the historical Jesus started with my listening to Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christ on Audible.com.  I highly recommend you check it out since he puts the case for Christ so much better than I can especially in such a short space.

There are people out there that believe in crazy things and one of the craziest things someone can hold to is that Jesus, as described in the Bible didn't ever exist.  I forget where I read it and I don't remember the exact wording but Jesus the best documented first century person.  Now, many skeptics might say that that kind of statement is biased because it's based on the Bible, which they wouldn't/don't trust.  But, there are many problems in that kind of thinking.  First off, even with only a layman's understanding I know that it's foolish to throw out the Bible as a valid historical source.  The process of textual criticism has been thoroughly studied for so many years that it would be completely foolish to throw out that entire body of work.  And, according to textual criticism there are more sources for the Bible (as we currently have translated today) than ANY historical text.  This chart from Charm.org describes the situation perfectly:
AuthorDate
Written
Earliest CopyApproximate Time Span between original & copyNumber of CopiesAccuracy of Copies
Lucretiusdied 55 or 53 B.C. 1100 yrs2----
PlinyA.D. 61-113A.D. 850750 yrs7----
Plato427-347 B.C.A.D. 9001200 yrs7----
Demosthenes4th Cent. B.C.A.D. 1100800 yrs8----
Herodotus480-425 B.C.A.D. 9001300 yrs8----
SuetoniusA.D. 75-160A.D. 950800 yrs8----
Thucydides460-400 B.C.A.D. 9001300 yrs8----
Euripides480-406 B.C.A.D. 11001300 yrs9----
Aristophanes450-385 B.C.A.D. 900120010----
Caesar100-44 B.C.A.D. 900100010----
Livy59 BC-AD 17----???20----
Tacituscirca A.D. 100A.D. 11001000 yrs20----
Aristotle384-322 B.C.A.D. 1100140049----
Sophocles496-406 B.C.A.D. 10001400 yrs193----*
Homer (Iliad)900 B.C.400 B.C.500 yrs64395%*
New
Testament
1st Cent. A.D. (A.D. 50-100)2nd Cent. A.D.
(c. A.D. 130 f.)
less than 100 years560099.5%*
*Not sure why there isn't a percentage of accuracy for all the texts.  The accuracy percentage was taken from comparing all the different copies and showing what percentage the copies agreed with each other.  The differences in the NT copies do not occur in major theological parts of the NT and do not affect the doctrines espoused by most Christian churches.

So, now that we've established the validity of the copies of the New Testament, let's examine how trustworthy a document of this type would have be in the light of the concept of conspiracy theories.

For these copies to be completely fake, dozens of people would have to all come together and collude to create a document over about fifty years.  They would have to get their stories straight, so they agreed, but not too much, because if the four Gospels were identical, it would be obvious that they were copying one another.  They would have to slowly, over time produce a variety of texts that don't sound like they're all written by the same people.  Then they have to all go out and convince others that what they're writing is a true, all the time knowing that it's a lie.  Think about the vastness of this lie.  The text says that Jesus appeared to over five hundred people at the same time (1 Cor 15:6), and remember these texts were written within 10-70 years of the events described and they even encourage people to seek out these people and seek the Truth.  So, if one really wanted to kill Christianity in its infancy, all one would have to do is point to a grave with a still buried Jesus and go, "Well, they're all liars."  Or, something more gruesome like put his body on display or something.  But no, early detractors from Christianity don't do anything like that.  In fact, according to scholars of ancient literature, the first century Jewish writings agree that there was indeed an empty tomb and they sought to explain away the issue with other stories like grave robbery.

This brings us to another important idea behind debunking the Jesus mythers.  Think about and compare people that believe in the moon landing conspiracy.  In today's day and age the people that believe such things are labeled nutjobs or crazy etc.  But, in all reality what does one risk to oneself by disbelieving in the moon landing or perpetuating a similar lie?  Nothing much, maybe a little ostracization for being abnormal, maybe derision from people who know the truth.  But, what happened to the people that perpetuated the story of Jesus?  According to this site it is highly likely that eleven of the twelve apostles were martyred.  Now, okay it does admit that some of the stories of their martyrdom are more speculative, but to say the least most of the disciples were killed for their beliefs.  Now again, we're talking about a conspiracy theory here right?  So, let's assume these apostles were the original source of this huge conspiracy, what happened to them after they spread this lie?  They paid for it with their lives.  So this conspiracy not only bears no benefit to the conspirators, it will most likely lead to their death.  This brings up an interesting question though.  Others will and have died for their beliefs so that doesn't prove Christianity as right or wrong.  However, there's a clear distinction that this objection misses is this: the many martyrs for various religions died and still die for things they believe with all their hearts as being true.  If they knew for certain that what they believed was a lie, they wouldn't have been as willing to go to their deaths.  According to Wikipedia Muhammad died of an illness, and Joseph Smith died at the hands of a lynch mob for apparently trying to set up a form of theocracy and trying to marry other men's wives.  Every martyr since these founders had set up their respective religions died because they believed the claims of the founders.

Still not enough?  Let's look at other sources.  Even if you still reject the Bible as historical at all, and hold on to the impossible theory that these men died for a huge lie.  There are other sources of evidence for the historical Jesus.  This site has a few of the non-biblical historical references for Jesus and according to the Strobel's book there are a number of things one can learn from non-biblical sources.  I don't remember the complete list as presented in the book, but here's what I remember.  He was born under questionable circumstances, He was considered from Nazareth, He performed signs and wonders, He was crucified, His followers continued to worship Him after the crucifixion claiming that He had risen from the dead, and these followers were regularly martyred for that belief.

So there you have it.  Still think Jesus was just a myth?  If so then you believe in the biggest most implausible conspiracy imaginable.  Hundreds of thousands of people had to be in on a lie and perpetuate that lie knowing that it would lead to their death.

View from Dobong Mountain (도봉산) Seoul S Korea

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Conspiracy Theory and Knowledge

First off, let me point you in the direction of the article that made me think about this topic.  There was this article from HowStuffWorks.com about ten people that are considered really smart that have done really stupid things.  The list was interesting to me because it brought up the idea of how we know what we know and what it takes to convince us of something that we don't believe.  There's also this interesting article that I found more recently about a similar topic.  There was also an article about people refusing to believe in things that have been debunked by science but I can't find that link right now.  When I find it I'll add it.

So let's start off our discussion with defining 'conspiracy.'  Wikipedia defines it like this: "A conspiracy theory is an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation."  Interesting that this definition has no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim.  Here are some doozies (that's the technical term) that I can think of myself that I know some people actually believe, this is in no particular order: The assassination of JFK (specifically that more than Lee H. Oswald was involved), the moon landing (it was totally faked), the holocaust deniers, the birth certificate of sitting president Barack Obama, any number of Biblical conspiracies including numerology and "Jesus mythicists," vaccination hysteria (the far extreme being the operative position), the 9/11 cover up, and the Erin Brockovich and the PG&E Hinkley groundwater contamination cover up.  This is just my own list of conspiracy theories that I've been thinking about in regards to this entry; it is by no means meant to be comprehensive here's another wiki article (nearly all the previous links were to wiki articles) that has a much more interesting list.

Starting off with the most difficult one, the JFK assassination.  First off, what is the question?  Is the conspiracy that more than one assassin was involved?  So what?  That doesn't really affect the world in any way.  If the conspiracy is that the US government intentionally covered up the fact that someone in power wanted to oust JFK by assassination, and blame it all on one lone gunman, that's more significant.  Here's my basic answer to that kind of conspiracy: Two people can keep a secret, if one is dead.  This old saying applies to the USG as well!  I recently commented on a video on Facebook about this, "The US can't keep ACTUALLY SECRET things secret (Snowden ring any bells?)! How in the world could someone believe that the US government could keep a secret so huge that thousands upon thousands of people would have to be in on it?"  The same critique applies to the moon landing hoax claim.  Do you really believe that the USG could collude with thousands of people to hide a lie that huge, and get away with it?

The moon landing is so much clearer to me.  Though the actual artifacts left on the moon by the Apollo missions cannot be seen with the Hubble telescope, it can be measured.  So, how much disbelief are you willing to suspend?  Does the movie Watchmen convince you that there really was a JFK conspiracy?  Then maybe the lunar laser ranging retroreflector experiment won't convince you that people really walked on the moon.

Another totally crazy one, basically this one gives even ordinary conspiracy theorists a bad name, is that people that deny the holocaust.  While WWII is fading into memories there have been enough actual eye witness testimonies and legitimately researched and peer reviewed historical texts that clearly document the truth.  How can people really close their minds to truth?

The reason I listed the Erin Brockovich case is this.  The plaintiffs were dismissed as conspiracy nuts at first.  Then, after a thorough investigation, they settled for somewhere around $333 million!  While technically a settlement is not an admission of guilt, it doesn't lend credibility to their counter-claim that there was nothing wrong.  My point was that not all conspiracies are false.  I'm not trying to claim that all seemingly crazy claims are false, but here's the deal, what will you accept as evidence and what will convince you that something is true (or false)?  Also, what will happen to your epistemology?  If your epistemology is foundational and one of these conspiracies is part of your belief system you could be in a world of hurt if it's proven untrue.  Foundational epistemology is dangerous!

Since this post is getting too long and I need some rest, I'll complete this discussion some other time.

If this characterizes your epistemology, you're doing something wrong.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: Part 8: Aquinas’s Metaphysics Part 2

I tried this with the part 1 of this lecture, but it didn't seem to shorten it at all!  I used the the text of the lecture and just commented on what I thought interesting.  Too much of it seemed important and the entry ended up much longer than I wanted.  So here goes part 2.

Here lies an apparent contradiction how is there unity in the diversity of the universe.  Even the word bespeaks of the contradiction, uni and diverse share roots with universe.  Parmenides denied one half of the apparent paradox, manyness.  This eliminates change as well because change is just a manyness in time, before and after.  He was a monist/pantheist everything is one god, the universe, everything because there is only one thing.  The direct opposite can be found in Heraclitus he denied any permanence, saying that all reality was like a river that you could never step into twice.  Plato resolved the problem by distinguishing two worlds, matter where there is manyness and the world of the forms where there was unity.  Aristotle joined Plato’s two worlds with substance being matter and form together.

Aquinas commented on the error of Parmenides and other monists with this:
“They fell into error because they dealt with being as though it were a univocal concept and an essence . . . this, however, cannot be done, for being is analogous . . . Parmenides argues as follows: outside of being there is nothing but nonbeing, and that which is not being is nothing. Since being is one, whatever is outside the one is nothing.’ From this argument of his it is clear that Parmenides was thinking of the concept of being, which appears always to be one and the same, and univocal, for it is unthinkable that something be added to the concept of being so that one concept of being be distinguished from another. For that which would be added to being must necessarily be something outside of and distinct from being. But the only thing outside of or extraneous to being is nonbeing or nothing. Hence it appears that the notion of being cannot be modified, cannot be anything but one, unique, and univocal.”
If there is only one thing, individuality is an illusion.  However, radical pluralism is nominalism: it denies universal ideas existence, and reduces them to mere words.  But, the evidence of our senses shows us both oneness and manyness.  Any good philosophy has to account for all possibilities, not ignore what we don't like or want to understand.

As Professor Kreeft says, "Aquinas explains the oneness of beings by the fact that they all share the act of existence, which is itself one and the same simple act.  But beings are different because this act of existence is received into many different essences."

I also like this quote, "Aquinas calls God the pure act of existence unlimited by any finite essence."

This is not to reduce God to a philosophical abstraction, just a way of talking about God that makes sense.  This does not change how God is the God of Abraham, Isaac etc.  This isn't about just philosophy, it's about the real world as well.

Everything that is real shares a kinship in the act of existence.  And, as God is the infinite pure act of existence this is one way in which God is omnipresent.  "God is existence itself, and existence itself is most intimately present at the heart of every being. Therefore God is most intimately present at the heart of every being."

So here we have it, God is everywhere but this is NOT pantheism, because it’s the act of existence and that transcendent fact that so is intimately present to everything.

Prof Kreeft goes into a long discussion about Angels and their differences from humans, but I'm not going to go into it here.

This is important to Aquinas' philosophy: "Like Aristotle, Aquinas defines change as the transition from potentiality to actuality, and he distinguishes two different kinds of change: accidental change and substantial or essential change. When I get older, smarter, or fatter, that’s only change in accidents, but when I die, that’s a change in essence."

Something remains the same in accidental changes, I am still me even though my entire body's cells have died and been replaced by new cells.

Each person also goes through essential change twice, when we are conceived and when we die.  Corpses are not people nor any kind of a person.

Again "following Aristotle," seems Aquinas was quite enamored with Aristotle's philosophy, "Aquinas distinguishes four causes, four kinds of causality: form and matter are the two intrinsic causes, the formal cause and the material cause; and the efficient and final causes are the two extrinsic causes."

This final point, which Aristotle and Aquinas call a "final cause," has fallen out of modern usage, possibly because it's not considered scientific.  All things act in definite ways.  Puppies always become dogs (assuming they don't die prematurely),  Birds fly, fish swim etc.  Puppies never become horses and rocks can't swim and never will.  This is final causality, things are directed to their specific ends.

As Aquinas argues in one of the five ways, everything that begins to exist needs an efficient cause to account for its existence.  If a thing itself were its own sufficient reason, it would have to exist always.  Either this sufficient reason is eternal or it would have to give existence to itself—which is impossible: nothing can give what it doesn't posses.

Again, sorry no picture!

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: Part 8: Aquinas’s Metaphysics Part 1

Part 8 is the beginning of a series of lectures that follow a philosophical order rather than the Summa’s theological order. First is metaphysics and the following lectures will cover philosophical anthropology, epistemology, and ethics.  Metaphysics is foundational because it deals with what is, what is real and what reality even means.  Everything depends on metaphysics.  If one is a materialist then in philosophical anthropology one will have to deny that humans are essentially different from animals, the materialist denies the soul.  The materialist's epistemology will necessarily be a strict empiricism, without a distinction between immaterial, intellectual, rational knowledge and sense knowledge.  Lastly the materialist will concentrate on material goods only.

Some modern philosophers deny the legitimacy of metaphysics.  This is a materialist position, claiming that metaphysics has no distinctive subject because its subject falls outside the material on which the hard sciences and other specific realms of philosophy focus.

Sciences look at beings, but metaphysics looks at universal properties and laws and principles.  What it means to be a being.  As Prof Kreeft says of Heidegger, Western metaphysics after Plato, is guilty of a “forgetfulness of being” because they focused on what things are forgetting to think about the fact that they are.  Aquinas does consider this and the primacy of the act of existence is at the very center of his view of metaphysics.

Another objection to metaphysics is that it claims a kind of God’s-eye point of view.  Looking at the whole of being as if one could do so from outside, forgetting that we are only part of the whole. Aquinas quotes Aristotle that “philosophy begins in wonder.”  He notes that the wonderis not just about some certain beings but about being as a whole. The very fact that we can raise questions about being in general indicates that we are not merely part(s) of that whole.  We can only wonder about something if we are outside that something.  This idea reminds me of the Gödel Escher Bach book by Douglas Hofstadter.

Hobbesian or Humean empiricism, seems to ignore the very mind that’s doing the reducing of itself to “the scout for the senses.”  These views don't seem to account for the very self that’s asking the questions about oneself.  The argument that this goal of knowing what existence is like this.  The very fact that we have the desire to know what existence is like belies that it is knowable.  We wouldn't have a thirst for a knowledge that we couldn't possibly have would be absurd.

Then we have the principle of analogy.  The principle of analogy solves the problem of how we can know anything about God.  If we view God in human terms it's anthropomorphic: we drag God down to the human level, if the terms used for God apply to humanity.  However, if the terms are equivocal, they tell us nothing about God and we cannot know anything about God.  If the attributes of God are analogical, then we know some reflections of God, though pale and remote—we can know something of God.

The first task in analogical analysis is distinguishing between actual existence and merely mental existence.  Aquinas uses the act of existence to separate the two types of existence.  Actual existent things exist by themselves, but mentally existent things do not.  Things that only exist in the mind cannot give real existence to things because they cannot give what they do not themselves posses.

To Aquinas the “second act” is activity and the “first act” is that of existence.  Existence is always acting, always giving itself to something ontologically—self-giving is built into the very nature of existence.  A theological reason for this is that existence is rooted in the very nature of God as self-giving love, and everything else is in the analogical image of God.

This brings us to unity.  Unity is also analogical, I like the way Prof Kreeft puts this: "God is more one than a human soul; and a human person is more one than an animal, because we can meaningfully say 'I;' and an animal is more one than a plant. And even a plant is more one than a rock, or an atom, or a subatomic particle."

This lecture is too long and complicated to give it a fair treatment in one blog post, so I'll save the second half for another entry.  Unfortunately, I don't have a good picture to include with this entry.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Response to, “On Being an Atheist” by H. J. McCloskey

Another Essay written for my philosophy class.  Here is a link to a copy of the article. 
A Response to, “On Being an Atheist” by H. J. McCloskey
This essay is written as a response to the article entitled “On Being an Atheist” by H. J. McCloskey as published in 1968. As this article is clearly an attack on both Christianity and theists in general, we need to be always ready to give an answer for the hope we have in Christ (I Peter 3:15). A verse, which has a much deeper meaning in the context of McCloskey’s claim that because of the problem of evil, “theists should be miserable just because they are theists.”

At first, McCloskey tries to offer snippets of a much grander discussion on some of the primary arguments for God and refers to the arguments as “proofs,” claiming that they cannot definitively establish a case for God. However, these couple pages are not nearly enough to cover such deep arguments and his attempt to dismiss them are reminiscent of Dawkins’ work in The God Delusion, which philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls sophomoric (Plantinga, 2007). McCloskey, like many other atheists, sets up a straw man and easily knocks it down. The arguments for God that McCloskey mentions, ontological, cosmological, teleological, and the argument from design, are combinatorial in nature. If one argument is apparently weak the other arguments more than make up for supposed weaknesses in each other. Also, McCloskey dismisses the ontological argument apparently only because ordinary theists do not typically believe in God as a result of these types of proofs, which isn't an argument.

In terms of the cosmological arguments, McCloskey seems to be commenting on both the temporal and the non-temporal arguments for God at the same time, using what has become a worn-out critique, “Who created God?” That question, used by many atheists who seem to smugly stand up as if they have won the argument, is completely unimportant to the question. The cosmological argument from contingency has nothing to do with an infinitely old universe, which is where the critique only makes sense. Saying, “Who created God?” is like asking who created the uncreated, or who made this square circle, it's nonsense. It is a philosophically useless question considering the contingency of the universe. The only serious issue with the contingency argument, is that just because everything we have experienced in the universe appears to be contingent, does not necessarily mean that the universe itself is contingent. That too can be answered in that, the fallacy of composition, though technically can be applied to certain premises in the argument, the entire argument does not hinge on whether everything is contingent or if the universe itself is contingent. If any part of the universe is contingent then there must be a non-contingent, necessary being.

McCloskey makes the same mistake Dawkins makes in his books and Professor McGinn makes in his lecture series on philosophy, that is, take one argument for God, point out its weaknesses then apply that to other, completely separate arguments for God (McGinn, 2003). No one, that this author knows of, is claiming that the cosmological argument “entitle[s] us to postulate an all-powerful, all-perfect, uncaused cause.” As professor Kreeft says of Aquinas’ “ways,” “They claim to prove only a thin slice of God, so to speak, but enough to refute atheism” (Kreeft, 2009). Why do so many make the logical leap from, “a God exists” to “the Christian God exists” when no legitimate Christian apologist does so?
Then McCloskey turns to the teleological argument for God and claims that one would need “indisputable examples of design and purpose.” Again, a huge logical leap is being made here from the possibility or probability of design to indisputable examples of design. Why, when counterexamples are given from evolution, is plausibility the only thing needed to disprove creative design, and yet one that argues for creative design must give indisputable examples? Many atheist evolutionists seem content to give plausible explanations of how time, chance, and natural selection can explain away professor Behe’s irreducible complexity, however the question isn’t is it certain that a creative designer was involved, merely is it more probable that a designer was involved. In all these arguments the goal is not certainty, but plausibility. It is more plausible that an intelligent designer was involved than mere time/chance/natural selection.

There are so many examples of design it is difficult to choose just one. However, the so-called “fine-tuning argument” seems to be the most powerful argument because it circumvents any natural selection critiques. Though some seem to think there is an evolutionary answer, that some invisible, untestable, un-provable multiverse theories or universe generating machine theories, and no matter how unlikely these objections may be, are accepted by dogmatic atheists. But at its very core the fine-tuning argument is a powerful argument as our knowledge of the universe deepens.

As the fine-tuning argument makes teleological arguments more probable, so does the idea of abiogenesis. There is no designer required in either of these portions of the teleological arguments for God. However, even conceding evolution as true, the question of design is still not answered. The evolutionary process appeals to the laws of nature to work in a certain way, which implies a goal or an end. The very idea of an end or goal in a process requires the existence of a mind to imbue the process with a purpose. Purely natural or chemical processes, though at times orderly e.g. crystal formation, they don’t in themselves have any purpose. One possible critique is that the only purpose is to live and reproduce, but even that is a purpose and requires an explanation. And, if that is true, the entirety of McCloskey’s article is rendered worthless. If all of life has no meaning or purpose or goal save to live and reproduce, the atheists’ attempts at conjuring meaning in life come up empty.

Again McCloskey attacks a conclusion from an argument that has not (yet) been made. He has only answered the cosmological and the teleological arguments and ignored the ontological and the moral arguments for God. The teleological and cosmological arguments only show that it is reasonable to conclude that an all-powerful entity created the universe. These arguments do not speak to the characteristics of this entity other than power, creativity, and intelligence. The problem of evil must be made in the context of a particular view of God, that is, a theological context. It can be said to perhaps show that a particular view of God might be wrong, but it does not show that there is not a God at all. These direct philosophical questions and claims of inconsistency, which William Lane Craig seems to claim that current philosophers (even atheists) have abandoned (Craig, "Reasonable Faith Podcast", 2007), fall short of the goal of proving that God does not exist. The apologist need only show that it is possible that an all-powerful, all-good God to have reasons for permitting the existence of evil, to answer direct claims from the problem of evil.

Despite the more modern philosophers’ neglect of the logical problem of evil McCloskey seems to be clinging on to it saying, “No being who was perfect could have created a world in which there was unavoidable suffering or in which his creatures would (and in fact could have been created so as not to) engage in morally evil acts, acts which very often result in injury to innocent persons.” This completely ignores the concept of the “greater good” “second-order goods.” The former is best illustrated in the heroic soldier falling on the grenade to save his comrades, wherein the death of the soldier is evil but is required for the greater good of saving his comrades. Also, it is required for suffering to occur if one is to learn patience in the face of adversity.

Both Mackie and McCloskey have made similar claims against the free will answer to the problem of evil McCloskey saying, “might not God have very easily so have arranged the world and biased man to virtue that men always freely chose what is right?” and Mackie, “why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good?” (emphasis added). At first glance it doesn’t seem like a response is needed, because part of the idea of freedom is the ability to choose otherwise. Even so, Plantinga gives an interesting answer that illustrates how that question forms a possible world that even an omnipotent being cannot create because it hinges on the choices of the created beings’ choices.
As McCloskey closes this article, and indeed the whole purpose as stated from the beginning, he claims how, in light of the problem of evil, atheism is more comforting than theism. There is little comparison between this article and Professor Craig’s “The Absurdity of Life without God” chapter in the book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Dr. Craig references dozens of atheist writers and philosophers who have all come to a similar agreement, there is no meaning in life. Who are we to trust? McCloskey’s blatant appeal to emotion essentially claiming, because theists have to answer the philosophical questions of why God would permit certain evils, their worldview is less comforting than the humanists’ perspective of self-reliance and self-respect. But as Nietzsche, is quoted by Craig from “The Gay Science,” in The Portable Nietzsche, “Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? God is dead. … And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” (Craig, 1994, p. 77). Which is actually more comforting, the idea that there is an all-powerful creator that imbues the entire universe with meaning and life, or dust that is only on this dust ball for a blink in the eye of eternity blindly flying through space? The answer is intended to be rhetorical, but the picture is clear. Despite the theists’ need to explain the existence of evil in the context of an all-powerful, all-good God, it is much better than being nothingness’ accidental offspring.
References
Beebe, J. R. (n.d.). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Logical Problem of Evil. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-log/#H4
Craig, W. (2007, August 5). Reasonable Faith Podcast. iTunes. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/reasonable-faith-podcast/id252618197?mt=2
Craig, W. L. (1994). Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics (Third ed.). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Dawkins, R. (2006). The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co..
Kreeft, P. (2009). The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books.
McCloskey, H. J. (1968). On Being an Atheist. Question 1, 51-54.
McGinn, C. (2003). Discovering the philosopher in you the big questions in philosophy. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, LLC.
Plantinga, A. (2007, March). The Dawkins Confusion. Books and Culture. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2007/marapr/1.21.html

Ruse, M. (2003, August 30). Creationism. Stanford University. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/creationism/

Friday, April 25, 2014

Essay on Plato, Descartes, and The Matrix

This is an essay I wrote for my philosophy class last week.  I took a more informal approach than my professor wanted, and my grade suffered for it.  However, I think it's appropriate for my blog.

In all honesty I think this part of philosophy is one of the main reasons many people dislike philosophy in general.  Imagine you're an ordinary student attending an ordinary college and you bump into a doctoral student who's sitting at the college coffee shop and you strike up a conversation.  This student is doing some sort of doctoral work in epistemology and is working on skepticism.  What student would enjoy being grilled with such questions as, "How do you know that's true?"  And, even after giving what a regular person would accept as a common sense answer to that question.  The philosopher asks, "Well, how do you know that's true?"  The student gives another different explanation of justification, to which the philosopher asks again, "How do you know that's true?"  After only a few times most regular people would give up, shaking his or her head walking away from such conversations wondering why some people are so wrong in the head.  Here's another tack.  When I asked my wife some questions about justification and epistemology, after pressing the idea a bit she finally gave up and responded, "people need to think less and go to the beach more."  (We live on a sub-tropical island in the South Pacific.)  Epistemology, especially justification and skepticism can eventually devolve into an infinite regress.  Now, these questions may make for interesting movie ideas like The Matrix and Inception, but it's more akin to irritating to an ordinary non-philosopher.  So, let's talk about three different approaches to skepticism and how/why justification is such a hard topic.

First, and oldest of these three is Plato's cave analogy from Book VII of The Republic.  During this book-long conversation Plato brings up an allegory of people that are chained in a cave and the only things they can see are shadows that are cast along the wall.  An interesting side note, different philosophers see this allegory differently.  I noticed this as I had just listened to The Republic audiobook and then heard a philosophy lecture.  The professor giving the lecture seemed to twist the idea and the people making the shadows into the villains.  The point as I understand Plato's meaning in the allegory is not we should be necessarily be skeptical of reality.  It seems more about how philosophers are the only ones that really explore the depths of reality and it's our responsibility to go back into the cave and teach those people what we've seen.  Yes, every part of The Republic is full of depth and meaning, but the people stuck in the cave and their misunderstanding of reality is not, in my opinion, the point of the allegory. (Plato, Book VII)

Then in chronological order, we come to Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.  Specifically, Meditation I paragraph 2 stood out to me.  I think this bit is key,  “ … it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false--a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach …" and this, "… it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt."  Though it may seem like it and indeed people often take Descartes for a supreme skeptic, he is not setting out to cause people to doubt he’s merely searching for the only thing that he can really know for sure, without a doubt.  In this search for what can be known with epistemological certainty he says, we'll never reach the point where he could show everything to be false, nor does everything have to have some doubt, just the foundational ideas.  If the foundation is dubious the whole edifice can be considered faulty.  However, in the end, Descartes finds a foundation: I doubt, which is thinking, therefore I exist.  So despite all the doubting and tearing down of the edifice of knowledge, Descartes found the foundation and we can start from there. (Descartes, 1641)

Now we come to the 1999 pop culture treatment of skepticism.  Though not as deep as Descartes’ or Plato’s treatment of not being sure of what anyone knows, it’s still an interesting portrayal of skepticism.  How would it feel to be hooked up to some kind of super-computer?  It seems like it’d be impossible to know unless there were some way to break out.  There has to be someone there with the red pill offering answers to all our questions.  Despite the implausibility of a select few having the unexplainable ability to twist the matrix to their desires, including Neo’s (Keanu Reeves’ character) ability to twist reality and give himself god-like powers in the computer-world that is somehow controlling everyone else’s thoughts.  Though the movie does paint a rather interesting dystopian picture of what it would look like for computers to control everyone’s mind, it seems completely implausible to me.  Though of course, that’s just what the mind-controlling supercomputer would want me to think. (Wachowski, "The Matrix", 1999)

So, how can we escape these epistemological puzzles?  How can we prove that we’re not all in a deep Inception-like dream, or Plato’s cave, or haunted by Descartes’ evil demon? (Descartes, 1641, p. I 12)  Well, short answer is, we can’t.  Well, not enough that we could dispel all doubt and forever put to rest any metaphysical skepticism.  One challenge would be to ask the skeptic how one can live with complete doubt of everything at all times.  Also, the self-refutation of the claim that we’re in a computer, that doesn’t need proof that we’re in a computer.  In other words, prove to me that we are just brains in a vat or disembodied thoughts swimming through an intricate computer SIM world.  However, to me the best test for the metaphysical skeptic is to change something with your mind.  I’m not asking for a miracle.  I’m just saying that if all we consist of are brains floating around in a vats, we should be able, at least a small amount, to manipulate the world around us with only our minds.  I understand that to do so in front of a group of people would seem impossible because not only would one have to change their own mind’s perception of a thing, but everyone else’s as well at the same time.  However, in the privacy of one’s own room or even just one’s own mind, one should be able to change something simple.  Like the bending spoon scene in The Matrix, everyone, with practice should be able to convince oneself that “there is no spoon” and make it appear however he or she wanted.

Despite the character Cypher’s opinion that deception is better than the truth, I’m going to have to side with (well Morpheus and) Plato that it is much better to seek the truth and when one has at least caught a glimpse of it, pass it along so that everyone tries to unhook from the matrix or break the chains binding them in the cave.  Though we can never get to that point, it’s better to live as if that isn’t the case and seek out knowledge than to slog on or stick one’s head in the sand doubting that we even have heads.  Much like Professor Kreeft says of Aquinas building a huge philosophy on a single small foundational point. (Kreeft, 2009)  We can rest on Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and build our epistemology from there.  Even if we’re just brains in vats, at least we’re somebodies.  Even without a body, our minds still exist.  If this is some elaborate dream someday we’ll wake up.  We should build our noetic structure a bit like this dome:


(Geodome, 2004) and have the foundation, though shaky it may seem, if rooted deeply in the foundation that no matter what parts of the dome are doubted the pile upon which it rests is immovable.

Once we’ve established that foundation let us add some depth to the foundation by placing it in God.  That’s not to say that we cannot or should not take the existence of God on faith.  But, if one is driving down the road looking at street signs one cannot live as if every one of them is a lie.  And there are so many signs that point to the existence of God.  So, though I may have, like everyone else, started life taking all knowledge through the evidence of authority; I have since grown up and matured and thought through my philosophy quite a bit.  I have come to a point where the foundation is firmly fixed on my own existence and that existence only makes sense with the existence of God.  On that foundation I build my beliefs.  If someone were to prove to me without a doubt that JFK was assassinated by conspiracy with two shooters; my geodesic dome of knowledge wouldn’t fall apart.  In fact I see this as a kind of synthesis of foundationalism and coherentism.  I really only hold one (or two) basic belief as my central belief.  This is how the coherentism system gets started, with at least one or two foundational beliefs upon which other are built.  My foundation doesn’t depend on my senses.  If anything, my foundation can be said to be the only possible guaranteed a priori knowledge, that is, that I exist.  If I don’t exist and I don’t know that I exist, how can I be asking myself if I exist?  Sure, it might be that my body doesn’t exist and my senses are all untrustworthy, but I most certainly exist and I can use deduction, induction, blind faith, gut feelings, and whatever I want to justify any belief above the foundation.  Each different justification has its own level of importance in the structure that is my belief system.  I can’t escape the question, “how do you know?” any more than any other thinking person, but I can justify what I know in many different ways and the more I defend something the more difficult it is to take it away.

If only everyone could hang out in places like this.
References

Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on first philosophy. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue.
Geodome -- Geodesic design software. (2004, November 11). Geodome -- Geodesic design software. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from http://geodome.sourceforge.net/
Kreeft, P. (2009). The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books.
Plato, The Republic, “The Allegory of the Cave” Book VII, 514A1-518D8.
Wachowski, A. (Director). (1999). The Matrix [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures :.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Long Time no Writing

I've been busy so let me give a bit of background before I get into what I've been thinking about lately.

I went to Korea to study Korean at Kyunghee University (경회대학), and I had a great time.  I made new friends, ate good food, and got to practice Korean quite a bit.  My wife and kids came to visit Korea for a week after my class was finished and I got to be their tour-guide/interpreter.  It was tons of fun!  We went to a bunch of places, but where I felt I did the best job as guide/interpreter was at the planetarium/kids museum in Namsan Park (남산공원) I basically translated the entire planetarium show for my boys and I felt like I only missed a few things.  My wife loved the fabric market in Dongdaemun (동대문시장) though that was one of the hardest parts for me as an interpreter, because there are so many specialized terms for various types of fabrics and they're different dependant on what you're using it to make.  Fortunately Michelle can just tell by feel and look which fabrics she wanted, and I just had to help with prices and amounts.

After returning from that month-long trip I get back to work and I'm the busiest I've ever been with work.  As many of you know I work for the US Air Force and I fly on an airplane to do my job.  Well, we have multiple planes here now and we don't have nearly enough people to cover all the positions in all the planes so I've been flying much more than I've ever flown before (with the exception of being deployed to the Middle-east a few years back.  On top of being super busy with work I restarted online classes and I'm taking Theology 202 and Philosophy 201 through Liberty U Online.  It's a bit disappointing so far because Philosophy is one of my favorite topics and while I feel like I have a good grasp of the concepts taught so far (it's only an intro to Philosophy class), I have the lowest grade I've ever had in any of my online courses.  The thing that bothers me about the class (it's also true of my current Theology class) is that they don't seem to be really trying to test whether I understand the material through the quizzes.  Rather they seem to be testing whether or not I read the assigned chapters.  For example, there was a question on a recent quiz that asked very specifically what a particular text says is important in a certain situation.  All the possible selections were logical and would have worked in the particular situation but the answer was specifically what that author said.  One could (in fact my coworker said something to this effect) that the reading is the material to be tested and that's what the quiz is getting at.

To me it's more important to encourage critical thinking, not test to see if students can parrot back what an author has said on such and such a subject.  I'm glad that there's more than just the quizzes in the class (there are a few essays).  I feel that, in both theology and philosophy, as long as one can give reasonable defenses and logical support for one's statements they've learned the material.  The point of theology is to understand the different belief systems surrounding humans trying to understand God as He has revealed Himself.  So if a student can come up with a commonsense, logical and biblical defense for a particular belief then that student has succeeded in theology.  Same with philosophy though one can remove the biblical component.  That's not to say one cannot apply biblical beliefs to the study of philosophy and vice versa, rather that philosophical answers that contain biblical arguments are not considered basic philosophical arguments.  That's the philosophy of religion or theology, depending on what the presenter is arguing.

Which brings me to yesterday.  I had to work and this particular time I was teamed up with a coworker that completely disagrees with me in almost every aspect of life.  After some random(ish) conversation about our recent exploits we started talking about philosophy.  I opened up with attempting to quote this section of one of the texts for my philosophy class, from Hasker's Metaphysics; Constructing a World View and I hope the exact same can be said of me:
". . . [I am] a Christian who loves philosophy and would like to consider himself a philosopher; he is a philosopher who loves Jesus Christ and want to be known as a disciple. A Christian first, a philosopher second—but neither one at the expense of the other. The insights I have gained from my Christain faith and expereince prove to be of immense value as I do my philosophy, even though I cannot appeal to biblical authority as the basis for a philosophical argument. And the results of philosophical study enhance Christian understanding in many different ways—some of them already hinted at, others yet to be shown."
I think every Christian interested in philosophy should be able to say something just like that!  Well, I wasn't able to capture the words of the quote, but I talked about the basic idea that I want to be a philosopher and a Christian and that neither one detracts from the other.  One of the things we touched on was not using biblical authority/quotes to make philosophical arguments.  He basically didn't seem to believe that so we launched into a long conversation about the beginning of the universe, meaning of life, source for morality, and other philosophical interests.

It seemed that he accepts Big Bang cosmology for what it is, and that chains of events cannot cause themselves, but insisted that the universe is actually eternal, we just can't see beyond that beginning.  So, we have an immeasurable, invisible, impersonal properties of physics that led to the Big Bang.  He gave the analogy that time and space is a wave that we're surfing on, we can look back and see the top of the wave but we can't see the other side, but we know it's there.  He claims that theism is irrational because theist postulate that God was the one that started the series of events called the universe at the Big Bang.  Implying that it's more reasonable to assume that there was just something before the Big Bang that caused it, we just cannot see or measure anything that might have happened before the Big Bang.  This is even though I defined the whole of the universe as a closed system encompassing all that actually exists, past present and future.  Basically, the way I understand his argument is pure materialism forcing him to ignore the evidence of the Big Bang and postulate that that must not actually have been the beginning.

He did does seem to understand that his position is a position of faith.  But, it doesn't make sense to me that he could consider his position to be the more logical.  We both arrive at the same beginning, and that something had to start the beginning but rather than accept that it must be something outside the something that exists, a timeless limitless being that started all the somethings, he insists that it's not really the beginning that there's an invisible immeasurable something before the beginning that became what we call the initial singularity from which the Big Bang originated.  I tried to use multiple tactics that show that that argument is enough to reach the conclusion that there is something out there that started all this, then when one takes that as an acceptable premise, the other arguments for God point to other characteristics.  That initial premise will only allow that that something is incredibly powerful (at least in the concept of power that we have), and that it must be limitless by all physical essences.  For example this entity must be timeless/eternal, because time is a function of the physical universe and this something is outside the physical universe.  There are other points but he refused to budge on the assertion that before the Big Bang was not really the beginning, that the universe is eternal.

I did "win" one point!  He asked what one had to do to be saved.  I don't know his full religious educational background except that he was once a Mormon.  He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him that one doesn't have to do anything to be saved.  I presented to "ABC" method of describing "attaining" salvation.  That is, Admit you've sinned (makes sense, since if you refuse that you don't need saving and wouldn't be asking these questions in the first place), Believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins, and Choose to accept that payment for the penalty of your sins.  I hope this was able to dispel the common notion that Christianity is about doing certain things.

I've already shared this photo once but I really like this cafe (and apparently the previous gif was bothersome)