1. Beauty: One of the Least or Most Important Things in the World

    We recognize, then, that only as we stand within the community can we be alone, and only those who are alone can live in the community. Both belong together…

    Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone. 

    —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Life Together (emphases are Bonhoeffer’s), h/t to Experimental Theology

    So, I admit I find this kind of quotation beautiful.  Some would find it horribly obfuscatory and obscure, but I do not.

    Furthermore, I find many other aspects of Christianity beautiful.  The idea of the Trinity.  The lives of the saints who actually love God and others.  The way it makes even suffering not just a negative aspect of life.

    But saying that a particular position is beautiful is not the same as saying that it is true.

    This is one of the reasons I find uncertainty so terribly draining. If I could only know atheism were true, I could say my sense of “beauty” was just an endocrine response to something-or-other.  If I knew Christianity was true, I would know it was a response to God-as-reflected-by-the-world.

    Currently?  Well, it either is a terribly important window into the most important aspects of reality, or it is just… a feel-good, epiphenomenal glaze that is best ignored save when one wants to have fun.

  2. "God of the Gaps" and Some Possible LImits of Science

    The “God of the gaps” is the God invoked to explain something which itself could and probably eventually will be explained by science.  Arguing for Zeus from thunder, or arguing for the Intelligent Designer from complexity, or arguing for the Divine Sustainer because the planets remain in their orbits—all are arguments for the God of the gaps, which fail as soon as meteorology, Darwin, and accurate physics come around.

    The idea is that God is postulated to explain whatever science hasn’t yet explained; wherever scientific explanation ends, there the philosopher or theologian points and say “Hey, that’s what God does.”

    If people just postulate God to explain certain things that science has not yet explained, then it is shameful to argue for a God of the gaps.

    If on the other hand there are some kinds of things that science will never explain and cannot explain because of the kind of thing science is then I’m not so sure invoking God to explain them is wrong.

    So this means one would have to try to determine what the limits of science are.  The problem with that is that, in order to determine what the limits of science are, you need to explain very precisely what the methods of science are.  And this is something that philosophers of science like to spill blood over: Carnap, Popper, Quine, Kuhn, and Feyerabend, to name justsome classic authors on the subject.  They all disagree about what science’s method might be—or if it even has a method.  Feyerabend would say it doesn’t.

    So, suppose I say I don’t know what science’s method is, for sure.  I could give you a few examples, sure—but if I give you the short summary Feyerabend could just provide some counterexamples of scientific progress that did not obey the method.  If you think you know a definite, final method, I suggest you read some of the authors mentioned above and think about it harder; this is more difficult than people make it out to be.

    So it is hard for me to prove to you that science cannot solve everything.  Maybe impossible.

    Here’s the thing.  I do not know all there is to know about the method of science, so I can’t show that something falls outside of the range of science—and I can’t prove that something falls within the range of science.  So let’s forget proof.  Leaving aside any definitive arguments, do I have good reason for thinking that some things at least will remain outside of the range of the scientific method forever?

    Well, yes.  Mathematical proofs proceed differently than science.  So do proofs in computer science, despite the name; computer science is more akin to math than to anything else.  So there are some things that are able-to-be-explained and not through the scientific method.  

    Some other things seem extremely unlikely to be explained through science.  Consciousness, for instance, has difficulty being tested like other things.  Scientific theories about consciousness really seem, in certain respect, as crude as Epicurean theories.  And then there’s that whole problem that consciousness can grasp mathematical proofs, which when looked at begins to get very peculiar. 

    So I think there are at least things that are candidates for thing that fall outside of the range of scientific explanation.  And if that is so, then arguing that only God could make certain things would not necessarily be a “God of the gaps” argument.  So one can argue for God, I think, in ways that are not merely “God of the gaps” type arguments.

  3. Aphorisms

    "To punish an idea, the gods condemn it to inspiring enthusiasm in the fool."—Nicholas Gomez Davila

    If you haven’t yet read some of Nicholas Gomez Davila’s aphorisms, then you should.  They’re pretty pessimistic in many places, but many of them are fun.  The man, “Don Colacho,” has been called the South American Nietzsche, and it is very enjoyable to read him.  Check out the section on philosophy, I like that particularly.

    In any event, here he points out that some ideas are not believed because only low-class people believe them.  Christianity is like this for many people: the only Christians they know are Baptist poor people, or atavistic traditionalist Catholics, or hellfire-loving Calvinists.

    Similarly, of course, many people would not be atheists because being an atheist is a low-class thing bloggers do on the internet. 


  4. 0% Probability

    I had an interesting conversation the other day.  My interlocutor was an atheist, who spoke of how one of her parents believed that there was a God; he did so on the basis of a very peculiar, ostensibly supernatural experience.  Our conversation went like this.

    Me: So why does he believe.

    She: [Recounts story apparently involving a bona-fide miracle.]

    Me: Huh.  That’s interesting.  If that’s true that would definitely make believing in a supernatural make more sense.

    She: Yeah, but there’s no way I’ll believe that.  I’d rather think I was going mad than think that the universe worked like that.

    Which does not really leave one with much with much room in observation-space for anything that would lead one away from atheism.

    It is tricky.  If your prior assessment is that something is 100% probable, no subsequent evidence can shift you from that evidence; if you hold something to be 0% probable, no subsequent evidence can shift you towards it.  Given that this is so, you probably ought not hold much, if anything, to be 100% / 0% probable.  But it is very hard to go through life like that.

  5. Prideful Agnosticism?

    I’ve already wondered whether agnosticism is lazy.  I’m beginning to think that, if there is a vice characteristic of agnosticism, however, it isn’t laziness.  It would be pride.

    The nice thing about the vice would be that it disguises itself as its opposite.  The agnostic says “Well, I’ve looked at the information, and I cannot make a decision.  I do not think I have the wisdom to decide the matter.”  So agnosticism appears a kind of humility, especially when contrasted with the dogmatic attitude of someone who thinks that he knows.  To claim to have the truth would at first glance be pride, while to claim not to know would at first glance be humility.


    To claim that nothing convinces one is to position oneself above everyone who is convinced.  It is, perhaps, to say “Well, certain things convince other people.  But see problems with their arguments that they do not see.  Therefore I am superior to the convinced on both sides.

    Of course, this pride can disguise itself further by saying, “Well, there might be something there that you can see, but I cannot.”  This is analogous to the statement “I do not follow your argument,” when the speaker is clearly intelligent enough to follow an argument, and feigns incomprehension as a way of communicating disdain.  The agnostic says that he is not convinced by the arguments of others, and thereby implies that only he has not been taken in.  (See the dwarves.)

    So Agonisticism can be pride.

    I worry especially that it might be a pride that involves ignorance masquerading as intelligence.  It is entirely possible that someone is feigning incomprehension of an argument that they think they understand but in fact actually do not comprehend.  In fact, I’m almost certain I’ve done this.

  6. The Courtier’s Reply and Shutting Up

    The Courtier’s Reply, as popularized by P.Z. Meyers, is a category used by atheists to characterize Christian responses to theist arguments.

    The term usually comes up like this: someone at First Things points out that the arguments of some or most “New Atheists” are massively unsophisticated and show complete ignorance of serious theology.  The atheist responds by saying that, as the child in the fable did not need to be a expert tailor to tell that the Emperor was naked, so also one does not to be a theologian to say that there is no God.  One need not be an expert in the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings mythos to know that it is about something that does not exist; one need not be an expert on leprechauns to know they do not exist; and so one need not be a theologian to know that there is a God.

    This has been criticized a lot.  I’d like to add one more criticism.

    Often, online, one will come across an exchange in the comments that goes something like this.

    AngryAtheist: There’s absolutely no evidence of any kind whatsoever for God’s existence.  Whoever thinks there that there is evidence is a deluded moron who cannot distinguish between fallacies and arguments, and post-hoc explanations and predictions.

    NaiveChristian: That seems a bit strong, AngryAtheist.  Have you read [book by famous Christian apologist], [intellectual book by not-so-famous Christian], or [really obscure book on something or other]?  I thought the same thing you did, once, before I read these books and others and decided that Christianity was in fact true.

    AngryAtheist: Those books are a tissue of specious arguments; they are full of metaphysical, pre-scientific attempts of reasoning; to go through them in detail (and therefore to read them) would be a waste of my time. [He says, perhaps mentioning it by name, that such books are merely an instance of the Courtier’s Reply]  Why don’t you just read [book advocating science as the only method of coming to truth] and realize the errors of your ways.

    Yes, I exaggerate.  But I exaggerate to make a point, namely this.

    One is sometimes right to accuse one’s opponents of making the Courtier’s Reply.  Really.  I don’t think I need to be an expert on space aliens who created human beings to serve as slave labor in gold mines to reject a theory that says this.  If someone were to give me a complex argument for the truth of such a theory, I would accuse them of making a Courtier’s Reply.  

    Nevertheless, when the accusation is true, the one who is accusing the other of making the Courtier’s Reply should still shut. up.  The accuser should shut up because they have have just confessed their complete ignorance about a field.  The accuser may be right in dismissing the field out of hand.  But if even if the accuser is right, they have shown that are not qualified to argue against the theory, because they probably do not even have the knowledge necessary to characterize it well.

    Put it this way.  I am willing to accuse anyone who defends the alien-overlords-trying-to-enslave-humanity thesis of making a Courtier’s Reply.  But if that’s what I do, then by that very fact I have admitted that I haven’t looked at the theory and any evidence for it in detail.  The fact that that I invoke the Courtier’s Reply means that, while I may be right, I am not a qualified argumentative partner in the conversation.  

    I should not attempt to debate those who think we are being enslaved by evil alien overlords.

    I should not write about them in newspapers.

    I should not appear on talk-shows attacking them.

    I arguably should not even mock them on websites.

    I should not do any of these things because, while I may not need to be an expert on leprechauns to reject belief in them, I do need to be an expert on them to publicly attack belief in them. 

    In short, although an accusation of the Courtier’s Reply can be used to try to shut up someone else, whoever slings the accusation about should know that it is the last thing they should say, if they want to be consistent with themselves.  Anything they say after that is, by their own confession, massively, and horribly ignorant.

  7. Lazy Agnosticism

    I’m not sure whether it is hard to be an agnostic, or easy to be an agnostic.

    On one hand, it is hard because I just don’t want to not-know.  I just hate, hate, hate, simply suspending judgement about something.  It feels impossible.  (In some ways, I feel more like someone who rapidly alternates between atheism and theism than an agnostic.  The human mind doesn’t want to entertain a possible state-of-affairs without coming down one way or another, I think.  So I have my theist days and my atheist days and I average them out to agnosticism.)  So many huge issues hang on the decision, and I just want it to be settled, one way or another.

    In some ways, I think this is good for me.  It forces me, at least in some areas, to try to actually see something for the first time, such as moral issues regarding human flourishing, metaphysical issues regarding the ultimate nature of things.  By approaching these from an agnostic position, I’m forced to try to attend to the phenomenon of these things themselves, without pre-determining what I will see by adherence either to atheism or Christianity.  Atheists usually approach things as reductive materialists; Christians approach things as people who already have rejected materialism; I can avoid this predetermination.

    On the other hand, maybe I’m just lazy.

    To be an agnostic could be to look at a huge conflict, a war, between two sides—a war with immense consequences for the happiness of all men—and say, “Huh, I’m not sure which of these sides is in the right.”

    After all, Christians see the atheists as tearing people away from the true peace and solace provided by a relationship with Christ, from the truth about the world, and from Heaven.  Atheists see Christians as tearing people away from happiness, from the scientific truth about the world, and into a dark cave where there is neither joy nor light.

    To join either side is to expose oneself to ridicule and attack from the other.  To say that any argument for either side is sufficient is to open oneself to a withering barrage against that argument.  It’s painful—and so, if you want to avoid pain, you’d become an agnostic.

    Agnosticism lets you poke holes in the arguments in either side, without requiring you to adhere to any of your own.  It is the most secure of philosophical positions, the skeptical.

    So, yeah—I’m not sure.  Maybe it’s a sign of human excellence that I’m hanging out here, in the wastes between either position.  Maybe it’s a sign of human depravity.  I really don’t know.

  8. Why Didn’t Christ Tell Christians Not to Torture People?

    1. Attempted Argument Against Christ’s Divinity

    "If Christ was in fact God, he knew all the future…

    He knew that commentaries would be written on his words with swords, to be read by the light of fagots. He knew that the Inquisition would be born of the teachings attributed to him…

    He saw the interpolations and falsehoods that hypocrisy would write and tell. He saw all wars that would be waged, and-he knew that above these fields of death, these dungeons, these rackings, these burnings, these executions, for a thousand years would float the dripping banner of the cross…

    Why did he fail to speak?… I will tell you why. He was a man, and did not know.”—Robert Ingersoll, from Vol. II of Collected Works.  h/t to The BitterSweet End.

    I’ve elided huge, huge amounts of rhetoric from the above (it isn’t just apologists that have rhetorical hammers), but the argument is pretty clear: it is undeniable that evil has been done in Christ’s name; if Christ were God, he would have known that this evil would be done; if Christ were good, he would have mentioned that people should not do it; so Christ probably was not God.  It is as valid as arguments come.

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  9. Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Neal Stephenson Novels

    "The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts.  But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent.  The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.  They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward."—The Constable, from Diamond Ageby Neal Stephenson

    So, I think the Constable here is obviously right.  Naturally, I also bend this belief back on itself, so that I am at least a little suspicious of what he is saying, because it seems so obviously right.

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  10. U2, C.S. Lewis, and a Failed Argument for God’s Existence

    I was going to put U2’s song, “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” here, but everyone’s already seen that.  So instead:

    U2 - I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight from David OReilly on Vimeo.

    "The sweetest song is the one you haven’t heard," is one of the lines in this song.  And this line is typical of U2 songs in that it speaks of how most of man’s life is composed of longing for something more.  No matter what you have, in some way you’re a bit dissatisfied; that’s part of what it means to be human.

    At least, according to me.  Maybe there are people out there who are just totally content, but I’m not sure I know you.  Or that I could relate to you, if I met you.

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