Philosophy Fridays: Considering God in History?

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Every now and then, on a Friday, I’ll step into the deep waters of Philosophy, ramble away on some idea and maybe even interact with it. Most of the time, a real philosopher could probably read my drivel and speak into it offering a corrective—but for now I’ll speak from ignorance. After all, it’s Friday; what better way to have fun than with philosophy. In this post I’ll answer the question “Should we consider God’s actions in historical discussions?” in under 700 words. Heh.

History, by its nature, is un-testable. We can’t put it under a microscope. Whenever we in the present study anything in the past we’re necessarily a step removed.

History, as it occurs, reports. In other words, anyone in the future depends on the report of what occurred in the past. That’s not to say that a person reports event-X but it is to say that if event-X occurs, it necessarily affects the future. Imagine being at the edge of a pond. You didn’t hear the splash, nor did you see the fish, but you see the ripple.

We can’t limit conclusions to only what is scientifically observable. If so, we couldn’t even offer natural explanations for common historical motivators: like fear, love, or courage.

Imagine someone studies my today. Sure, I’m not God, but I am a Mind who acts in history. They’d find a bag (near the front door) that has a container (bits of food), keys (they jangle and open things), a parked vehicle (warm to the touch), and a badge with a picture.

P concludes: the badge owner enjoys eating scraps of food from a container that it stores near doors; he enjoyed the music of the keys; and turns on the vehicle for warmth or to heat up small scraps of food currently stored in the container.

R posits: the badge owner works at an office and it uses the car keys to drive the vehicle to and from work; the badge gives access into work; the container holds the remaining scraps of a meal; and the individual has forgotten to take those things out of his bag.

J concludes that: the badge is worn to ward off evil spirits; the keys and the vehicle have absolutely no bearing; the container holds the remaining scraps of a propitiatory sacrifice.

You can’t decide which account is right with 100% precision so you must come up with an argument for what makes the most sense of the evidence:

One: Does the offered account explain the data? J ignores some data.

Two: Does the offered account powerfully support the data? P brings up some information that is not supportable by any data (the enjoyment of music). Likewise J (ie: evil spirits; ignores the keys and vehicle).

Three: Is the offered account plausible?  A largely empty container to store scraps of food while owning a vehicle seems implausible.

Four: How made up is the explanation? It’s hard to decide which one is more made up than the other. I we separated this discovery by several thousand years R would be guilty of reading current experience back onto the evidence.

Five: Do any facts come up that disproves any of these offered accounts? So far, nothing.

Six: Which account best explains the most aspects of the evidence? Or which explanation covers the most data? So if you look at J, the explanatory scope is narrow: it covers only a few bits of the evidence. P needs evidential support for the enjoyment of music. R’s explanatory scope is also broad.

True intellectuals should be able to weigh any proposed account, even ones including God, according to all six criterions without denying it simply because of a naturalistic bias or personal preference. The only way to deny it is to say that (1) it is impossible for God to exist or (2) it is impossible for God’s activity to work in this or that way. Both are outside of man’s ken.

If a proffered historical explanation which includes God powerfully handles the widest range of data then decrying it is historiographically naïve and ultimately mere pseudo-intellectual silliness.

Should we consider God’s actions in historical discussions? Yes.

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Philosophy Fridays Quotable: Alvin Plantinga, Evolution, and Open-Mindedness

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Consider The Grand Evolutionary Myth (GEM). According to this story, organic life somehow arose from nonliving matter by way of purely natural means and by virtue of the workings of the fundamental regularities of physics and chemistry. Once life began, all the vast profusion of contemporary flora and fauna arose from those early ancestors by way of common descent. The enormous contemporary variety of life arose through such processes as natural selection operating on such sources of genetic variability as random genetic mutation, genetic drift and the like. I call this story a myth not because I do not believe it (although I do not believe it) but because it plays a certain kind of quasi-religious role in contemporary culture: it is a shared way of understanding ourselves at the deep level of religion, a deep interpretation of ourselves to ourselves, a way of telling us why we are here, where we come from, and where we are going.

Now it is certainly possible—epistemically possible, anyway, —that GEM is true; God could have done things in this way. Certain parts of this story, however, are to say the least epistemically shaky. For example, we hardly have so much as decent hints as to how life could have arisen from inorganic matter just by way of the regularities known to physics and chemistry. (Darwin found this question deeply troubling; at present the problem is vastly more difficult than it was in Darwin’s day, now that some of the stunning complexity of even the simplest forms of life has been revealed.) No doubt God could have done things that way if he had chosen to; but at present it looks as if he didn’t choose to.

So suppose we separate off this thesis about the origin of life. Suppose we use the term ‘evolution’ to denote the much weaker claim that all contemporary forms of life are genealogically related. According to this claim, you and the flowers in your garden share common ancestors, though we may have to go back quite a ways to find them. (So perhaps herbicide is a sort of fratricide.) Many contemporary experts and spokespersons—Francisco Ayala, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Gould, William Provine, and Philip Spieth, for example—unite in declaring that evolution is no mere theory, but established fact. According to them, this story is not just a virtual certainty, but a real certainty. This is as solid and firmly established, they say, as that the earth is round and revolves around the sun. (All of those I mentioned explicitly make the comparison with that astronomical fact.) Not only is it declared to be wholly certain; if you venture to suggest that it isn’t absolutely certain, if you raise doubts or call it into question, or are less than certain about it, you are likely to be howled down; you will probably be declared an ignorant fundamentalist obscurantist or worse. In fact, this isn’t merely probable ; you have already been so-called: in a recent review in the New York Times , Richard Dawkins, an Oxford biologist of impeccable credentials, claims that “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims nor to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” (Dawkins indulgently adds that “You are probably not stupid, insane or wicked, and ignorance is not a crime . . .”)

Now what is the source of these strident declarations of certainty, these animadversions on the character or sanity of those who think otherwise? Given the spotty character of the evidence—a fossil record displaying sudden appearance and subsequent stasis and few if any genuine examples of macroevolution—these claims of certainty seem at best wildly excessive. From a Christian perspective, evolution isn’t remotely as certain as all that. Take as evidence what the Christian knows as a Christian together with the scientific evidence—the fossil evidence, the experimental evidence, and the like: it is at best absurd exaggeration to say that, relative to that evidence, evolution is as certain as that the earth is round. The theist knows that God created the heavens and the earth and all that they contain; she knows, therefore, that in one way or another God has created all the vast diversity of contemporary plant and animal life. But of course she isn’t thereby committed to any particular way in which God did this. He could have done it by broadly evolutionary means; but on the other hand he could have done it in some totally different way. For example, he could have done it by directly creating certain kinds of creatures—human beings, or bacteria, or for that matter sparrows and houseflies—as many Christians over the centuries have thought. Alternatively, he could have done it the way Augustine suggests: by implanting, seeds, potentialities of various kinds in the world, so that the various kinds of creatures would later arise, although not by way of genealogical interrelatedness. Both of these suggestions are incompatible with the evolutionary story. And given theism and the evidence it is absurd to say that evolution (understood as above) is a rockribbed certainty, so that only a fool or a knave could reject it.

So why that insistence on certainty and the refusal to tolerate any dissent? The answer can be seen, I think, when we realize that what you properly think about these claims of certainty depends in part on how you think about theism. If you reject theism in favor of naturalism, this evolutionary story is the only visible answer to the question, “Where did all this enormous variety of flora and fauna come from? How did it get here?” Even if the fossil record is at best spotty and at worst disconfirming, even if there are anomalies of other sorts, this story is the only answer on offer (from a naturalistic perspective) to these questions; so objections will not be brooked.

A Christian, therefore, has a certain freedom denied her naturalist counterpart: she can follow the evidence where it leads.

On Christian Scholarship, Alvin Plantinga

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Philosophy Fridays: No May21st = No God?

Every now and then, on a Friday, I’ll step into the deep waters of Philosophy, ramble on about some idea and maybe even interact with something I might be reading. Most of the time, a real philosopher could probably read my drivel and speak into it offering a corrective—but for now I’ll speak from ignorance. After all, it is Friday; what better way to have fun than with philosophy. In this post I’ll deal with some philosophical issues surrounding the rapture (or lack thereof come May 21st) in under 700 words.

Let’s say that the rapture doesn’t happen on May 21st, 2011 (which, according to the last posts, seems extremely likely) does that mean that God doesn’t exist? After all, there is a group of Christians saying that it is an irrefutable fact that the Bible teaches this date for the rapture. And if the Bible teaches it, and it doesn’t happen, then surely God doesn’t exist.

This sounds silly, but I’ve seen folk raising this point as if now we’ll have the proof either way. But there’s several responses to this.

The Bible could be wrong, is one response. That shouldn’t be as catastrophic as some Christians might think. The existence of God isn’t predicated on a Bible that doesn’t make mistakes; it’s predicated on the fact that God exists. If the Bible contained errors, that wouldn’t negate the truth claim of God existing, it would just put into question what we can know about God’s existence.

Even then, that shouldn’t put us into an agnostic tailspin. We might wind up looking at the Bible like any other collection of ancient documents: containing historical data while simultaneously containing mistakes. So the way we would look at a modern textbook in School and say “this didn’t happen exactly this way” while still trusting what the book says, we can likewise do this with a Bible that contains mistakes of the proportion of predicting Christ’s return on May 21st, 2011.

But we don’t even have to go as far as saying the Bible is wrong. We might offer an easier response: the date-setters are wrong—and that could be at two levels. One level (which I think the date-setters might employ) is that (a) the calculations were wrong or (b) the event was right but the extent of the event was mistaken. Jehovah Witnesses, for example, long predicted that Christ came but made a correction saying that Christ entered into Earth with some sort of presence of judgment awaiting Armageddon. They weren’t saying that before the prediction failed. Anyway, this would only prove the fallibility of men.

The second level (which the date-setters will avoid if the event doesn’t occur) is that the date-setters were wrong on almost everything. They started trying to do something that there is no warrant to do, they based their math on presuppositions, and they preached a message which God never authorized. If anything, this wouldn’t disprove the existence of God either; it’d just prove that men can make intentional mistakes when they try to do what they aren’t authorized to do.

Even if the rapture does happen, it wouldn’t prove these date-setters were right. It could be that the rapture happens, but these people got the right day by luck and not by mathematics or revelation. This would leave these people wrong on everything except for the date which they hit by accident.

Of course, I personally doubt the event will occur tomorrow, but either way it doesn’t disprove the existence of God nor prove that the exegesis of the date-setters was spot-on.

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