Thursday, May 29, 2008

‘Golden Oldies’ or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Deceased Equine Flogging

Dear Rhology,

As I read your latest vigorous broadside against metaphysical naturalism and my humble articulation thereof, one word irresistibly came screaming to my mind: gold. No, this does not reference what some might consider your 24-karat intellect. Rather, it appears you are attempting, with much strain but negligible success, to split the atom. All this shall be fully explicated, but first a brief digression.

Suppose you have a block of gold and you wish to break it down into smaller pieces. Obviously, this is easy enough to do, so you crack it apart until you have several hundred small pieces of gold. But suppose you want really, really small pieces. Well, you could take a few of the smallest chunks you have and dice them up further, until they are really infinitesimally small. And you could repeat this process without end, creating smaller and smaller pieces of gold, right? Actually, no, you could not. As Richard Dawkins (in service of a different point) explained in “The God Delusion,” “Why shouldn’t you cut one of those pieces in half and produce an even smaller smidgen of gold? The regress in this case is decisively terminated by the atom. The smallest possible piece of gold is a nucleus consisting of exactly 79 protons and a slightly larger number of neutrons, surrounded by a swarm of 79 electrons. If you ‘cut’ gold any further than the level of the single atom, whatever else you get it is not gold. The atom provides a natural terminator….” In the case of gold division, the infinite regress is thwarted by the atom. The atom terminates the series.

Well, what then is a First Principle, philosophically speaking? A First Principle is a broad supposition—yes, a supposition—about the nature of reality. This supposition, once chosen, forms a foundation upon which grander conclusions can be stacked. Said another way, a First Principle is a postulate, from which to argue and with which to build. Because a First Principle is foundational—that is, it cannot be deduced from any other assumption or proposition—it cannot be “split” or independently proved. The best that can be said is that the postulate does not contradict itself. My preferred example of a self-annihilating axiom is “Mathematics is the only way humans can reach truth.” This First Principle fails because one cannot appeal to mathematics in order to show mathematics is the only way humans can reach truth. As such, it annihilates itself. My First Principle—that being, evidence is the best, most reliable way for humans to approximate truth—is materially different from the mathematics example because evidence (relevant facts) can be marshaled to demonstrate evidence’s utility. Because of this, my postulate is self-subsisting.

What, then, of your objections? Clearly, you are attempting to confect an infinite regress where none actually exists. Your series of “can you supply evidence” questions is analogous to trying to divide that smidgen of gold just a little bit further. However, just as the atom provides a natural terminator to gold division (whatever else results from further division, it is not gold), the First Principle provides a natural terminator to the series of questions. The First Principle is primary—step number one. Try as you might to dice it up, it is indivisible—or, at least, following subsequent division, you no longer would be dealing with the postulate (any more than you could split a gold atom and still have gold). As such, it is enough to say my axiom—unlike the mathematics example—is self-subsisting and internally coherent. And thus, on top of this supposition, all my conclusions are built.

Why do I feel confident in my First Principle? The reasons are innumerable. First, throughout humankind’s history, evidence has proven its worth, quite literally, a million times over. The most reliable systems of justice currently in existence revolve around the presentation of evidence. The most effective medical systems in the world are those that discover the relevant facts of illness and base their treatments thereon. In our everyday lives, we all operate according to evidence: When we catch a weather report predicting rain (evidence), we carry an umbrella (utilization thereof). When we notice brake lights illuminate in front of us (evidence), we slow our own vehicle (utilization thereof). When we (hazily) see a knife protruding from our belly and blood gushing everywhere (evidence), we get the knife removed and the wound treated (utilization thereof). The usefulness of relevant facts is manifest…is self-evident…precisely the kind of thing for which one should look in a First Principle.

Another benefit of my chosen postulate is that, far from starting me at the finish line, it could lead me anywhere. My evidentialist axiom could lead me to atheism or theism…to Christianity or Hinduism…to naturalism or supernaturalism. Even now, certain evidence would make me accept Christianity’s truth. For instance, god could speak to every living human being on the planet, sharing precisely the same message and offering exactly the same instructions vis-à-vis salvation. Some people might still reject the deity but, at the least, every human alive would possess direct spoken knowledge of god’s wishes. Alternately, Yahweh, in an instant, could carve his name onto the Moon. Or, on a lark, god could rearrange the planets in our solar system. [Presumably, given his omnipotence, god capriciously could swap Earth and Pluto, yet maintain the solar system’s stability and keep Earth’s creatures alive.] Prayer in Jesus’ name could result in amputees re-growing their missing limbs. Or, spectacularly devout Christian believers could have unexplainable healing powers, along the lines of limb regeneration. Evidentialism in no way precludes acceptance of Christianity’s truth; it simply requires actual evidence. Your postulate, by contrast, does equate to starting the race at the finish line. Atheism vs. Theism? Already answered. Christianity vs. Hinduism? Already answered. Naturalism vs. Supernaturalism? Already answered. Ad infinitum. When you describe your First Principle as being “far fuller,” you unwittingly verify my “start-at-the-finish-line” objection.

There is nothing more to add in rebutting section one, so I next shall turn to the scriptural issues on which we have touched.

In response to my observation that the New Testament is not unanimous in its stated path to salvation, you write, “Oh please. Are you seriously proposing that you are familiar enough with biblical hermeneutics and exegesis to make a serious argument on these grounds?” To my point that a decent argument could be crafted for salvation being granted by means other than saving faith, you respond, “Yes, please do. Make it a post on your blog and let's see how well you do.” Such a post shall not be composed, because it would have as much place on my blog as a post arguing that fairy dust—not pixie dust—is emitted from pixie wings. I do not care about such issues. Suffice it to remark that the documents from which the New Testament was cobbled together were written by several different authors, each of whose theological ideas had unique accents and distinctions. The differences between Mark and Luke, for example, rise above piddling storyline inconsistencies; the New Testament’s several authors did not have identical theological views (although, compared to the apocrypha, they do fall in line) and your claim to absolutely uniform consistency is not in evidence.

The other scriptural issue with which to contend relates to Jesus’ failed prophecy regarding the imminence of his second coming. In my initial communication with you, I quoted Matthew 16:27-28, whereas, in my second post, I quoted Matthew 24:25-35. You respond, “Oy vey. This is exactly what I mean. You jump from Matt 16 to Matt 24 and hope no one will notice! Did you even try to read ch 17-23 before jumping all the way to Matt 24? Why not just go whole hog and insist that I apply the same hermeneutical principles from the genealogy of Matt 1 to Matt 24?” Responding to my declaration that the weight of the evidence pointed to a failed prophecy, you write, “Well, since you didn't offer a counterargument nor present an exegesis of this Matt 24 psg, one can only guess at how you came to that conclusion.”

I do not know the degree to which you respect C.S. Lewis’ biblical scholarship, but I assume you are aware that, according to Lewis, my selection from Matthew 24 contains “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible” (Matthew 24:34). My reason for bringing up both passages was their similarity of language and seeming similarity of prediction. And, whereas, for my original selection, you could employ the excuse of Jesus’ transfiguration, that particular excuse is not available for my second selection. In any case, this also seems to me not to be particularly important. Suffice it to note that historians agree that first century Christians expected Jesus’ return to be imminent—as in, before they tasted of death. Although, of course, the first gospel was not written until around 70 CE, Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings seemingly convinced Paul, who expected the second coming of Jesus in his near future and during his own lifetime. Please consider 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:2-11.

In this area of your response, you say I come across as an atheist fundamentalist. You write, “You just KNOW all this is nonsense and you don't NEED to prove it. It's OBVIOUS. To EVERYONE. Except MORONS and FLAT-EARTHERS….” Your comments here remind me of something written by David Hume in his piece on miracles. Hume writes, for a just reasoner, “a miracle, supported by any human testimony, [is] more properly a subject of derision than of argument.” In the case of, for example, Matthew’s attestation to hordes of zombies roaming about Jerusalem (Matthew 27:52-53), derision is indeed the best counterargument.

My disproof? Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

For a claim such as zombies, that disproof is as sound and devastating as possibly could be mounted. However, I rarely take that argumentative tack.

You addressed several peripheral issues, but I think only three warrant further consideration. First is the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG), which, although your preferred argument for the existence of god, I characterize as philosophical prestidigitation. In response to my assertion that I can “prove” the Ethereal Cosmic Catfish (ECC) using TAG just as easily as you can “prove” Yahweh with it, you write, “And I already explained why that is full of hot air.” In fact, you have not, so I shall restate the point concisely. TAG is the kind of argument that depends upon the nature of god in order to work; that is, certain of god’s attributes make TAG effective. [This is why, for example, you say TAG could not be used to prove Baal or some such deity.] However, you have failed to prove that every jot and tittle of Yahweh’s nature is essential for TAG to work. Unless and until you prove that, one rightly assumes only certain core elements of Yahweh’s nature are required. That being the case, I could endow ECC with the core essentialities that make TAG functional, and then add sundry variables to ensure ECC is different from Yahweh. After so doing, I could deploy TAG to prove ECC, and use the Catfish as my metaphysical foundation. That such an exercise could be done ably demonstrates the fatuousness of the argument; it is little different from Anselm’s ontological argument, as previously noted. If conjuring god with this trick, you might as well wave a magic wand and pull a rabbit from your hat.

Second, you express concerns about Carl Sagan’s observations. You accuse me of being “a product of Western-centrism” when I say that one’s chosen flavor of religion tends to be determined by parental/societal inculcation and coincidence of geography. Your countervailing evidence is (a) there are more born-again Christians in China than in the US, (b) there is a very significant missionary movement in India by Indians, and (c) South Korea sends more missionaries overseas per capita than any other country. These facts would mean more, however, if we did not live in a globalized world. Christians are extraordinarily media savvy, spreading their message worldwide through television, radio and even cinema. Moreover, Christians boast a robust missionary movement, familiarizing third-world-country dwellers with their superstition. Far more convincing to me (and the late Dr. Sagan) would be independent revelation from god himself, directed to people who had never previously heard of Yahweh or Christianity. You cite China, which reminds me of my favorite quote from Christopher Hitchens’ “god is not Great.” Hitchens writes, “One recalls the question that was asked by the Chinese when the first Christian missionaries made their appearance. If god has revealed himself, how is it that he has allowed so many centuries to elapse before informing the Chinese?” Whatever deities might have haunted Chinese history, none was distinguishably Yahweh. This is telling. Imagine if, around 2000 BCE, worship of Yahweh had simultaneously arisen in the Middle East, China, the Americas and central Africa. What compelling evidence that would have been! In actuality, primitive populations begin to worship Yahweh when believers in Yahweh arrive at their shores.

Finally, you are uncomfortable with my charge that Yahweh has an idolatrous fetish for free will. So what is idolatry? It is worship of any cult image, idea or object (usually in opposition to the monotheistic god character). I chose this descriptor largely because, in traditional Christian thought, god is characterized as loving. For the word “loving” to be comprehensible in the context of god, it must mean the same thing as “loving” in the context of humans: We are familiar with, and can understand, this definition. If, in the context of god, “loving” has a mysterious alternate meaning, then you might as well say god is “oglivok” because both statements would convey no actual information. [This is why I have said, for the statement “god is knowledgeable and/or powerful” to be meaningful, those words must be defined identically as in human affairs. Mysterious alternate definitions make such declarations incomprehensible.] In human affairs, to characterize an individual as loving is to say he has loving intentions and acts upon them regularly. No human who consigned billions of people to a place of endless, agonizing torture could be considered loving. Because you believe god does damn people by the billions, something must be undoing his loving intentions. The standard Christian answer is human free will. God’s devotion to human free will is such that he permits people to make their own choices, even choices that shall result in consignment to eternal agony. Because god’s loving intentions are unraveled by his affection for free will, I rightly observe god, if existent, has an idolatrous fetish for the free will idea.

None of the other points is substantial enough to justify extending this already-lengthy diatribe. However, I must comment on this curiosity: “I pray for your eventual repentance and salvation.” Thank you, Rhology. And I, for my part, shall sacrifice a goat and castrate a sheep on your behalf in order to appease Baal, who is well known as a jealous and angry god. I am sure there is a suitable altar in the Tri-State Region.

In all seriousness, I give you my best. I retain hope that the purest water of reason still—some day—might touch your lips, washing away the unfortunate stain of superstitious primitivism. Yes, the first jarring “splash” might shock you, but this is only the jolt of rising from slumber to brilliant wakefulness.

Warm regards,