Friday, April 29, 2005

Is it irrational to believe something because somebody said so?

Several years ago, I decided it was time for me to educate myself on the whole issue of evolution and creationism. The first book I read was Vital Dust by Christian de Duve. After reading that book, I came to the realization that before I could ever be qualified to have a strong opinion about evolution, I was going to have to know a lot more than I knew about biology. I gave up on it.

Since then, I have had this sneaking suspicion that there are a lot of people on both sides of the issue who have very strong opinions about it, but who really aren’t qualified to say, because they lack the necessary education to be able to assess the evidence.

I want to observe what seems to me to be an inconsistency among some non-believers. Some of them think Christians are irrational if they take things on authority. In other words, if Christians believe some things because some authority says so rather than because they examined the evidence for themselves, then some non-believers think the Christians are being irrational.

Among those non-believers, there are some who have very strong opinions about evolution, but they have no education in biology or archaeology. All they know is that the vast majority of the scientific community in the relevant field believes in evolution. It seems, then, that they take evolution on the authority of scientists. They don’t believe it because they themselves have examined the evidence and found it compelling; they believe it because many scientists say so.

That’s inconsistent. If they think it’s irrational to take things on authority, and yet they take evolution on authority, then by their own standards, they’re being irrational.

I think where they’ve gone wrong is in assuming it’s irrational to take things on authority. It’s not. If it were, then all of us would be irrational or else we wouldn’t know much at all. Most of what we know, we know because we learned it from somebody who was qualified to tell us. Think about it. Most of the education system is based on authority. That’s why colleges have math professors who are heavily educated in math, and history teachers who are heavily educated in history. When you take notes in a history class or read a history book, you’re learning things by taking them on the authority of the professor or the author. It would be next to impossible for us to research everything we were taught for ourselves, so we must take some things on authority or else remain largely in ignorance.

It is perfectly appropriate to take things on authority if the authority is qualified. It’s not irrational to get legal advice from lawyers, and it’s not irrational to get medical advice from doctors.

Now, of course, sometimes the authorities disagree with each other, and in those cases, you have to be more cautious about just believing anything they say.

Since most of us Christians don’t get direct revelations from God, we have to take many things on authority. The Bible, the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, etc., are all authorities we base our beliefs on. The question is whether these sources are qualified, but that will be saved for future blogs.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Watch TV this Saturday night

Deepak Chopra, the popular New Age author, and Greg Koukl, an apologist from Stand to Reason, are going to argue for an hour on the TV show, Faith Under Fire, this Saturday, April 30, on Pax TV at 9:00 PM central time. It promises to be good. That's why I thought I'd mention it. If you're like me, and you don't have cable, find a friend who has cable and have them record it or go watch it at their house.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

We are ambassadors

Melinda Penner, from Stand to Reason said something on their blog that I thought was worth repeating here:
Every Christian is an Ambassador for Christ, every day, 24 hours a day. Whatever job we have, whatever task we do, whoever we serve, we can do it as for the Lord.
Christianity is not just a hobby; it's a lifestyle.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Men have no right to speak against abortion!

Unless you are a woman, you have no right to say anything about abortion, because you don’t know what it’s like to have to make the kinds of decisions a pregnant woman has to make.

Unless you are married, you have no right to say anything about wife beaters, because you don’t know what it’s like to be married to a woman.

Unless you’re a slave-owner, you have no right to say anything about slavery, because you don’t know what it’s like to be a plantation owner.

What do all three arguments have in common? They are all forms of the ad hominem fallacy. Anybody with a brain has a right to make an argument, and whether an argument is sound or not has nothing to do with who makes the argument. What makes an argument sound is if the premises are true and the conclusion follows from the premises.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

unplugging the baby

The pro-life argument is pretty basic. It goes like this:

1. It's wrong to take the life of an innocent human being.
2. Abortion takes the life of an innocent human being.
3. Therefore, it's wrong to have an abortion.

Most people will already agree with the first premise, so the whole argument between pro-life people and pro-choice people revolves around the second premise.

As an aside, most pro-choice arguments suffer from irrelevence, because they don't address the second premise.

Suppose, though, that a pro-choice person agrees with the second premise (as some do), but still insist that women have a right to an abortion on the basis that a woman has sovereinty over her own body, and the unborn in her womb has no right to use her body without her consent. The argument would look like this:

4. A woman has a right to sovereignty over her own body.
5. Abortion involves the excercise of a woman's sovereignty over her own body.
6. Therefore, a woman has a right to have an abortion.

She dispute (1) on the basis that there is an exception that applies to all abortions. She would say that it's wrong to take the life of an innocent human being unless that being depends on the use of your body to survive. So she has rebutted the pro-life argument and constructed a pro-choice argument of her own. What do you do in a situation like that?

Well, you could dispute her first premise the same way she disputed yours. She disputed yours by finding an exception to it that applied to all abortions. You could dispute her first premise by finding an exception that applies when it involves another human life. Here's an analogy to explain.

Let's say a woman has an infant who is still breast-feeding. There's no such thing as formula, and nobody is willing to breast-feed the baby for her. Would she have the right to starve the baby to death on the basis that she has sovereignty over her own body? You see, the baby needs her body to survive.

If you say that she has an obligation to breast-feed, then that would require an exception to (4) that would exclude abortions from a woman's right to sovereignty over her own body. Since (4) was the basis for finding an exception to (1), the pro-life argument is once again intact.

I was arguing with a friend of mine about abortion, and when I used this analogy, she surprised me. She said the woman would have a right to let her baby starve, because she is under no obligation to let her baby use her breast to stay alive. At that point, I was stumped. I didn't know where to go from there.

Notice that my analogy is similar to the famous violinist analogy Judith Thompson came up with. Both analogies are meant to be analogous to abortion, but clearly the breast-feeding analogy is more analogous than the violinist analogy, so I think it could probably be used as a defeater to the famous violinist analogy.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Organized religion

There's a lot of people out there who don't like organized religion. I suppose maybe they're okay with unorganized religion; it's just the organized kind they don't like.

That raises two questions for me. First, what is organized religion, and second, why do people have a problem with it? Presumably, if a person says they don't like something, they know what it is they don't like. It wouldn't make sense for somebody to say they don't like organized religion if they don't even know what they mean by "organized religion." So these questions are best answered by those people, and not me.

I'm going to offer some speculations, though. When people say "organized religion," I take them to mean the same thing as institutionalized religion. That is, a religion that has some structure involving different roles for different people, a government or heirarchy, etc. The Catholic Church is a good example. They've got a Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and ordinary folks. There are rules for how they run their organization.

When people say they are against organized religion, they could mean one of two things. Either they don't personally prefer to join one, or they don't want there to be any. If it's the first, I suppose there's not much you can say to a person who doesn't like organized religion anymore than there's anything you can say to somebody who doesn't like broccoli. It's just a matter of personal preference.

If it's the second, then that raises another question: What's wrong with organized religion that people don't want there to be any? I think there are two reasons. First, because they don't like authority, and second, because of the evil organized religions are capable of.

There are two senses in which a religious heirarchy can have authority. The first is just administrative. They tell you what to do. Some people don't like to be told what to do. The second is more religious. They tell you what to believe. People object to being told what to believe more than they object to being told what to do. If they don't accept that some leader is in any better position than them to know truths, then they can't accept anything the leader says merely on their authority. They must accept it because there is good evidence to think it's true. But if they must accept it on the authority of the leader, then this seems to require them to give up the use of their brain in order to submit to the authority of the leader.

An organization can be more effective than an individual, because an organization can divide up responsibilities, so that people can pool their abilities together for a common purpose. In the past, that has often amounted to some evils, such as the inquisition. These kinds of evils scare people away from organized religion.

My only response is that evil isn't a necessary byproduct of organized religion. The common purpose can be good just as well as evil. So I personally would not object to organized religion just because it's organized. If anything, I would only object to it's purpose if that purpose were evil. Many religious organizations pool their resources for a common goal which is good. For example, my own church likes to build homes for poor people in other countries, and it takes a team effort. There are those who finance it, those who do the planning, those who supervise, and those who do the manual labor.

Christians organized themselves into churches, not just for the benefit of the poor, but for the mutual benefit of each other. As Paul points out in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, the purpose of the church is to build each other up in the faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and we are all gifted in different ways so that we're able to contribute. We need each other.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The moral argument for the existence of God

In the last couple of blogs, I've been developing an argument for the existence of God. Now I want to state the argument explicitly.

1. If there is no God, then there are no objective moral values.
2. There are objective moral values.
3. Therefore, there is a God.

A couple of years ago, I really tried to develope this argument in a pursuasive way, and I came up with several ways to demonstrate the truth of both premises. In the last two blogs, I gave one way to demonstrate each. In some future blogs, I'm going to throw out other arguments. Some of these are better than others. Some are probably flawed. My whole purpose is to come up with the most pursuasive arguments I can, and to be able to articulate them in the clearest way possible.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Does anything really matter?

Nothing matters unless there's somebody it matters to. Imagine if there were no sentient beings in the universe--neither human, alien, nor spirit. There is only matter and energy. In a universe like that, all kinds of things may be going on. Stars nova, commets smash into planets, and galaxies are formed. But none of it matters if there's nobody it matters to. It doesn't even matter whether anything is happening at all. It doesn't matter whether the universe even exists or not. Since it doesn't matter, there is no particular way things ought to be. "Ought" applies to nothing at all in a universe like that. So there is neither right nor wrong, good nor evil. Things just are.

Now consider the human condition. Here we are on a tiny spec of dust in the universe called "Earth," having recently come to the realization that in a few billion years, the Sun is going to begin to expand until all life on earth is destroyed. Assuming by that time we haven't figured out how to set up colonies on other planets in other solar systems, humans will cease to exist.

That raises a question: Once humans are gone, will it matter that they ever existed at all? It can only matter if there's somebody it matters to. If there's nobody it matters to, then it will not have mattered. If it doesn't matter that humans ever existed at all, then nothing humans did while they existed matters.

That raises another question: Since humans haven't ceased to exist yet, does anything matter now? Again, it only matters if there's somebody it matters to. Perhaps it matters to humans themselves. Individuals and societies pour significance into the various things that happen to people, but they don't all pour the same significance. Suppose, for example, that some nice old lady is skinned alive and left to die because some sadistic crazy person thought it might be fun to watch. One person might be outraged, but another person may not care at all. Does it matter or not?

Well, it matters to one person, but not to the other. There is no objective answer to the question, though. There is no ultimate meaning in it at all if significance depends merely on human preferences.

The only way there can be a correct answer to the question--an answer that is true whether two people agree with it or not--is if there is some sentient being who transcends humanity. This being must not only be sentient and stand over and above humanity, but this being must have some ultimacy about it. It must be some sort of necessary being, a being on which everything else depends, and therefore is invested with its meaning. Only if this being exists can anything matter in any ultimate sense. If there is no such being, then nothing ultimately matters.

If there is a necessary, sentient, and transcendent being on which everything else depends, and things matter to this being, then there can be ultimate meaning. Things like suffering and death would not just be things we either care about or don't, but they would be real tragedies whether we recognized it or not, because it would matter to the ultimate being.

Without supposing that such a being exists, we can appropriately call the being "God" since the being is necessary, sentient, trancendent, and is a being on which everything else depends for its existence and meaning. If there is no God, then nothing matters in any objective sense, because meaning is left to the subjective preferences of contingent and transient beings, like humans. If nothing matters in any objective sense, then there is no particular way things ought to be. If there's no particular way things ought to be, then there's no right or wrong, good or evil. In short, if there is no God, then there are no objective moral values.

For more on this subject, check out The Absurdity of Life Without God by William Lane Craig.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Are moral realists delusional?

John Locke and George Berkley both had perceptions of a world around them. The difference is that Locke thought his perceptions existed not only in his mind, but that they also corresponded to a real world outside of his mind; whereas, Berkley thought his perceptions existed only in his mind, and that there was no external world.

In the same way, moral realists and moral non-realists both percieve a difference between right and wrong. The difference between them is that moral realists think their perceptions correspond to the real world, whereas moral non-realists think their perceptions exist only in their minds, and that in reality, there is no difference between right and wrong.

If Berkley is right, then we're all perceiving a world around us that isn't really there. It seems to be there, but it's just an illusion. If the moral non-realists are right, then we're all perceiving a distinction between right and wrong that isn't really there. Some things seem right and others wrong, but that's just an illusion.

Of course it's possible that there is no external world. It's possible that it's all an illusion or a dream. It's possible that these perceptions are only in our minds. But be honest with yourself; does that seem reasonable to believe?

It's also possible that there is no real difference between right and wrong. It's possible that our perception is merely a social construction that exists only in our minds. Apparently, there's a lot of people who think that is quite reasonable to believe, but I want to tell you one reason why I think it is quite unreasonable to believe.

Sociopaths have no moral motions. They feel no moral incumbancy. Though they may be told that some things are right and others wrong, this is merely academic to them. Though they may assent to what they are told, their conscience tells them nothing. They perceive no difference between right and wrong.

If there really is no difference between right and wrong, then sociopaths are perceiving the world more accurately than the rest of us. While we look at the world and perceive a difference between right and wrong that isn't really there, sociopaths see the world as it truly is--completely devoid of any right or wrong. But we all think sociopaths are crazy. That's why we consider it a mental illness. Their minds aren't working right. If we consider sociopathy to be a mental illness, that shows that we think a correctly working mind is a mind that percieves a difference between right and wrong.

How odd would we be if we considered a correctly working mind to be a mind that perceives things that aren't really there, and an incorrectly working mind to be a mind that perceives things accurately? Everything would be backwards. Mentally healthy people would be people who suffer from delusion, and mentally ill people would be people who see things they way they really are.

But let's be honest with ourselves; that's just nuts. If a correctly working mind perceives something, then there really is something there to be perceived. That's what it means for the mind to be working correctly--it means it perceives things that are really there, and it doesn't perceive things that aren't there. If a correctly working mind perceives a difference between right and wrong, then the perception of morality is an accurate perception. That means there really is a difference between right and wrong. It's not just in our heads.

Monday, April 18, 2005

What is truth?

Usually when we say something is true we mean that it corresponds to reality. If I say, "Willie swiped a pan of cornbread," and if, in reality, Willie really did swipe a pan of cornbread, then what I said was true. If he didn't swipe a pan of cornbread, then it's not true. What I'm describing is called the correspondence theory of truth.

The correspondence theory of truth isn't really a theory about truth; it's the definition of truth. It's what we all mean when we say that something is true. Words are defined by their use, and this is the way everybody uses the word "true" in their everyday lives. Even people who claim to subscribe to the coherence theory, the pragmatic theory or whatever other theories of truth there are, when they hear some story, and they ask, "Is that true?" they want to know if it really happened. People only subscribe to other theories of truth when they're writing philosophy papers or having a philosophical discussion. If people are going to mean something by "truth" besides "correspondence with reality," then they really ought to just use a different word and avoid all the confusion.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Is free will compatible with God's perfect foreknowledge?

My hero, Jonathan Edwards, denies that we have free will on the basis that God has perfect foreknowledge. This is one part of The Freedom of the Will that I disagree with. Although I do not believe we have libertarian free will (I'm a compatibilist), I don’t think the idea of having libertarian free will is inconsistent with the idea that God has perfect foreknowledge.

Suppose that God knows tomorrow, Ethel will boil some peas. “God knows Ethel will boil some peas tomorrow” implies that “Ethel will boil some peas tomorrow” is true. You can’t know something that isn’t true, so if God knows something, then it’s true. But the question is this: Is it true because God knows it, or does God know it because it’s true?

If it’s true because God knows it, then God knowing it is what causes it to be true. If God knowing what Ethel will do tomorrow is what causes her to boil peas, then she is determined to boil peas by God’s foreknowledge. In that case, she doesn’t have free will.

But if God knows it because it’s true, then it being true is what causes God to know it. This is the common sense understanding of the way knowledge works. Nothing is true because somebody knows it. Rather, the only way anybody can know anything is if it’s true already. In this case, Ethel can have free will with respect to boiling peas.

By the law of excluded middle, Ethel will boil peas tomorrow, or she will not boil peas tomorrow. One of the following two propositions is true:

1. Ethel will boil peas tomorrow.

2. Ethel will not boil peas tomorrow.

Regardless of which one happens to be true, the thing that makes it true is that it corresponds to what Ethel will actually do tomorrow. Let’s suppose that (1) is true. In that case, Ethel will boil peas tomorrow. Now we can form the following argument:

4. God knows (1) because it’s true.
5. (1) is true, because in reality Ethel will boil peas tomorrow.
6. Therefore, God knows (1) because Ethel will boil peas tomorrow.

See? It’s all up to Ethel. She has free will. But her having free will is perfectly consistent with God having foreknowledge.

Now if we suppose it’s the other way around, the argument would look odd.

7. Ethel will boil peas tomorrow, because (1) is true.
8. (1) is true, because God knows it.
9. Therefore, Ethel will boil peas tomorrow, because God knows it.

Even the things God causes to be true aren't true because he knows it. Rather, he knows it, because he causes it. The knowing itself doesn't cause anything, so God's foreknowledge is perfectly consistent with the idea that we have libertarian free will.

Look at it another way. Let’s suppose there is no God at all, and nobody knows the future. Even so, (1) or (2) is necessarily true by the law of excluded middle. Suppose it’s (1) again. Well, Ethel isn’t caused to boil peas simply because (1) happens to be true. Rather, (1) is true, because that’s what Ethel is going to do. So Ethel can have free will. Now let’s say that somebody comes along and stumbles upon this information. He discovers somehow that (1) is true. Does his discovery have any affect on Ethel’s freedom? No. Even if he knows what Ethel is going to do, that doesn’t diminish her freedom. In the same way, just because God knows what Ethel is going to do, that doesn’t diminish her freedom.

Friday, April 15, 2005

What makes a counterfactual true?

A counterfactual is a conditional proposition. For example, "If Shi goes to Jason's house, then she will kiss him." In an earlier blog, I was explaining how Plantinga showed that there are possible worlds an omnipotent God can't create. After writing it, I got to thinking about it some more. Remember that by the law of excluded middle, one of the following two propositions is true:

1. If Shi goes to Jason's house, then she will kiss him.

2. If Shi goes to Jason's house, then she will not kiss him.

Since one of those is true, there are possible worlds God can't actualize. If (1) is true, for example, then God can't actualize any possible world in which Shi goes to Jason's house and does not kiss him.

I got to thinking that the only reason one of these counterfactuals is true, and not the other, is because of which world God chooses to actualize. If God chooses to actualize a world in which Shi goes to Jason's house and kisses him, then (1) is true. If so, then it's up to God which counterfactual is true, and if it's up to God which counterfactual is true, then Plantinga's argument is faulty. God can actualize any possible world he wants to.

After thinking about this for a while, I discovered the error of my ways. You see, Plantinga is assuming libertarian free will. Shi is free to choose whether she is going to kiss Jason or not. That's one of the stipulations of Plantinga's argument. If Shi is free to choose, then it's Shi who determines which counterfactual is true, not God. The only way God can make one counterfactual true and not the other is by elminating Shi's free will. If God determines what Shi's choice will be, then Shi isn't really free. So Plantinga's argument is valid after all.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

omnipotence and the problem of evil

Plantinga made a good point in his book, God, Freedom, and Evil. The logical problem of evil is the idea that the set of propositions including "God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good," and "Evil exists," are contradictory, and therefore cannot both be true. Most theists do not understand omnipotence to mean that there are no limits to what God can do. They usually understand it to mean there are no non-logical limits to what God can do. God cannot, for example, bring it about that he both exists and doesn't exist, or that necessarily true statements are false, or that there are square circles, etc. You see, part of J.L. Mackie's argument against God included the premise that "There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do," in order to argue that God could have created a world containing moral good, but no moral evil. The point Plantinga made that I thought was good was this: If theists agree with Mackie that there are absolutely no limits to what an omnipotent being can do, then the problem of evil poses no problem for them, because, as they say, God can do what is logically impossible. If being omnipotent means that God can bring about logically impossible states of affairs, then the fact that the problem of evil describes a logically impossible state of affairs is merely a curiosity, but not a problem.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Can God actualize any possible world he wants?

In one of the earliest blogs on this blog when I first started blogging, I blogged a blog about Alvin Plantinga's solution to the deductive problem of evil. Well, before you run off and read it, I just want to say that having looked at it a lot closer and having written a paper about it, I'm afraid I grossly oversimplified his argument to the point of almost mischaracterizing it. So scratch that.

I'm not going to explain his whole argument here, because I'm trying to keep these blogs short enough to be light reads, but I want to take a stab at explaining the part I mentioned yesterday that I had such a hard time understanding. I'm still not totally sure I understand it, but I'm going to take a stab at it.

This is the part where Plantinga argued that there are possible worlds an omnipotent God cannot actualize. I'll leave it to you to find out what possible world semantics is all about. Maybe some day I'll write a blog about it.

By the law of excluded middle, one of the follow two counterfactuals must be true:

1. If it is actual that Shi goes to Jason's house, then Shi will kiss Jason.

2. If it is actual that Shi goes to Jason's house, then Shi will not kiss Jason.

We may not know which of these two counterfactuals are true, but we know at least one of them is true.

There are possible worlds in which Shi goes to Jason's house and kisses him, and there are also possible worlds in which Shi goes to Jason's house and does not kiss him. Nothing is incoherent about either scenario. (Of course there are also possible worlds in which Shi doesn't go to Jason's house at all, but who cares?)

Let's assume (1) is true. If (1) is true, then it is not possible to actualize any world in which Shi goes to Jason's house but does not kiss him. If any world were actualized in which Shi goes to Jason's house, then it would be a world in which Shi goes to Jason's house and kisses him, because we've already stipulated by assuming (1) that if it were actual that Shi goes to Jason's house, then Shi would kiss him. Since (1) is true, God can only actualize those possible worlds in which Shi goes to Jason's house and kisses him. He cannot actualize any possible world in which Shi goes to Jason's house but does not kiss him, because that would lead to a situation in which Shi both kisses him and does not kiss him, which is a contradiction.

If you assume (2) is true, you get the same result. There would be possible worlds that God could not actualize. Since we know by the law of exluded middle that either (1) or (2) is true, it follows that there are possible worlds that God cannot actualize even if he is omnipotent.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Riddle me this!

I've been writing my research paper on Alvin Plantinga's solution to the logical problem of evil. I just finished it Sunday. I was getting a little worried for a while there, because there was part of his argument that I had the hardest time understanding. He was explaining, using possible world semantics and counterfactuals, that there are some possible worlds God could not actualize even if he is omnipotent. I think I finally figured it out. If not, I think I faked it well enough in my paper.

But that's not why I'm writing this blog. I'm writing this blog, because while I was straining my brain to understand Plantinga's argument, it all reminded me of something I got to thinking about last year. It's a little puzzle I came up with.

Suppose there's this guy named Ottis, and Ottis is the kind of guy that whenever somebody tells him he's going to do something, he intentionally does just the opposite in order to prove them wrong. Suppose further that God knows what Ottis will do tomorrow. Is it possible for God to tell him?

Confucianism and Taoism

We've been doing Confucianism and Toaism in my comparative religion class lately. We've got a test on Tuesday. I figure I better comment on them before it's all over. I don't have much to say about them, though.

"Religion" is one of those notoriously difficult words to define, but usually we recognize it when we see it. With Confucianism, I don't see it. Confucianism sounds to me a lot more like a political theory than a religion. I honestly think that if Confucianism counts as a religion, then so does Communism.

I would probably have more to say about Taoism if I studied it more. Maybe by Tuesday I'll have more to say about it. So far everything I've read has been so esoteric and ambiguous that I really just don't get it. Taoist are obsessed with acquiring energy or power, but they are also obsessed with not using it. Their whole philosophy is about doing everything by doing nothing. Their worldview revolves around the Tao, but nobody knows what it is. They sure do say a lot about it for not knowing what it is.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

No comment?

I've noticed that I hardly ever get any comments on my blogs anymore. I don't know if that's because nobody is reading them, nobody has anything to say about them, or because I haven't said anything interesting in a while. If there's anything anybody wants me to write about, any question or puzzle you want me to comment on, or anything at all, please say so.

The crazy things people do to avoid ethical pain

Ethical pain is that feeling you get when you know you’ve done something wrong. It’s not just guilt, but it’s a sense of disappointment in oneself. Ethical pain must be a powerful thing, because people go to great lengths to avoid it.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that the thought that we’ve violated the moral law is so painful that we will think of any way we can to let ourselves off the hook. Since I read that, I’ve noticed myself and others doing it all the time. It seems to be almost automatic.

I think the craziest length some people go to avoid ethical pain is moral relativism—the view that there are no real moral values. Moral values are just made up by individuals or societies. This lets people off the hook, because they think they aren’t really violating any moral standards that actually apply to them. They can change the rules whenever they need to avoid ethical pain. Or they can just do away with the rules altogether.

There’s another way to avoid ethical pain that few people seem to ever try. Instead of getting rid of the rules or looking for loopholes to let yourself off the hook, why not just obey the moral laws? Why not just do right and avoid wrong? Why don’t more people try this?

I think there’s a good reason. Christianity is one of the few worldviews that’s honest about this. The reason we don’t avoid ethical pain by being moral is because we can’t. It’s too hard. We have a crazy bent toward sin—disobedience to the moral law. The drive to sin is so great that even those with the best intentions can’t avoid it. Being moral is just too hard. It’s easier to rationalize, minimize, or pretend there are no rules.

Why is being moral so hard? It's because of the kind of people we are. It's easy for somebody with nothing but good intentions, good motives, and good dispositions to be good. Being moral is almost impossible for us, though, because that's not the kind of people we are. We do bad things because we have bad intentions, motives, and dispositions. Christianity is unpopular, because Christianity is realistic about this. Embracing the Christian worldview requires people to admit things they don't want to admit.

It’s understandable why Christianity is so hard to stomach. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, the idea that we’ve broken the moral law is so hard for us to stomach that we’ll make almost any excuse for ourselves to avoid it. A divorced girl once confessed to me that she had cheated on her husband with his best friend just to get revenge. Then she tried to justify herself by saying, “After what he did to me, I didn’t feel married.” Of course marriage is not a feeling, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and even the most absurd excuse will do if it’s all you’ve got to avoid admitting that you’ve done something so wrong. The reason Christianity is so hard for people to except is because before you can accept it, you have to first drop all the excuses and admit that you really have violated the moral law. You really have done wrong. There are no loopholes to let you off the hook. You’re guilty. Once you admit your guilt, you are left to face yourself in all your moral failure. That’s not easy.

For further reading on the subject of "crazy things people do to avoid ethical pain", I would recommend J. Budziszewski’s article, “The Revenge of Conscience.” I think J. Budziszewski is quite perceptive.

Is it inconsistent to be pro-life and pro-death penalty?

One of the oddest arguments I've heard against the pro-life position, I first heard from one of my history professors in college. He asked the class how many were pro-life regarding abortion. Then he asked how many of those were for the death penalty. Then he smirked, thinking somehow he had caught the pro-lifers in an inconsistency. Most of those who were pro-life also supported the death penalty, and my history professor thought that to be inconsistent.

He's not the only one either. At the time, I thought he was just a peculiar person that hadn't thought things through. Since then, I've heard this same argument come up several times from several different places.

Here's why I think it's so odd. There's a huge difference between killing a person who has committed no crimes, and killing a person who has committed murder. One is innocent, and the other is guilty. People are pro-life, because they think the unborn are innocent human beings, and it's wrong to take the life of an innocent human being. They are for the death penalty, because they think murderers deserve the death penalty. Where is the inconsistency?

If there is any inconsistency at all, it's in those who are pro-choice but also against the death penalty. How odd is it to suppose that it's perfectly alright to kill innocent people, but it's terribly wrong to kill guilty people? You might object by saying, "But pro-choice people don't believe the unborn are people." That's probably true in the majority of cases, but there are some who do. But my point isn't to argue that pro-choice people are inconsistent if they are against the death penalty. I'm just illustrating the absurdity of them claiming pro-life people are inconsistent if they are for the death penalty. If there is any inconsistency at all, it is on the part of pro-choice people who are against the death penalty.

Now I'll be honest with you. I'm pro-life, but I have some reservations about the death penalty. Mostly, my reservations come from my lack of confidence in the justice system, which has grown over the years. I would be all for the death penalty if guilt could be established with certainty--raising the bar quite a bit above "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Final comments about Buddhism

As I said before, there are many schools of thought within Buddhism, so not everything I say will apply to all Buddhists. I mainly want to say a few things about my teacher's point of view, which I can only assume is representative of Mayahana Buddhism. I just want to mention a few more problems with his point of view. I'm going to try to wrap up my comments about Buddhism in this blog.

First, he denies (as I think most Buddhist do) that there are any substances or things. So not only are there no selves, but there are no things, either. Everything is interconnected. That means that there's no distinction between self and other. Those of us who perceive such a distinction are just living in ignorance.

If you ever run into a person who denies that there's a distinction between self and other, here's a little thought experiment you can use on them:

Sam: Think of a number between 1 and 10, but don't tell me what it is.

Steve: Okay.

Sam: Do you have it?

Steve: Yes.

Sam: Do you know what number you're thinking of?

Steve: Yes.

Sam: Do you know what number I'm thinking of?

Steve: No.

Sam: Well if there's no distinction between self and other, how is it that you know your number, but you don't know mine?

Another question you might ask them is this: "If there's no distinction between self and other, why is it that some people reach Nirvana and other's don't? Why aren't the merits of one person's behavior credited to the other person?" You have to be careful here, because not all Buddhists agree. Theraveda Buddhists believe each individual reaches Nirvana on his own, but Mayahana Buddhists take the Bodhisattava vows. That's where they vow not to enter Nirvana until every blade of grass is enlightened. So it isn't the case with Mahayana Buddhists that some reach Nirvana while other's don't. A better question to ask a Mayahana Buddist is why some people become enlightened while other's don't.

My teacher is also a big Nietzsche fan, and Nietzsche wrote this book called Beyond Good and Evil. One day, my teacher said that Buddhists are beyond good and evil--an opinion I doubt most Buddhist share. I asked him, "If Buddhists are beyond good and evil, how can there be an eight fold path? How can there be such a thing as right action?" You see, the eight fold path is essentially moral in nature. There's right intentions, right speech, right behavior, etc. He thought about it for a while and finally said, "That's a good question." Then he changed the subject. Being beyond good and evil also renders karma incoherent. Karma is based on morality.

Finally, Buddhist claim their religion is empirical. It's based on observation. But in reality, Buddhists deny everything that's obvious. They deny that there are particular things, they deny there's any distinction between self and other, they deny that the self endures through change, they often deny the basic laws of logic, and they deny that time is real. Buddhists think everything in our ordinary observations are just illusions. They think the ordinary person is living in ignorance, and that they have to become enlightened. The only sense in which Buddhism is based on observation is in the fact that they observe the world in order to know what they should deny.