Monday, June 21, 2010

Atheist Delusions - Short Review

I recently concluded the phenomenal Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and it's Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart. The title gives the impression that it would be an all-out polemic, and in a certain sense it is. However the vast majority of the book focuses on a few central claims made by atheists and proceeds to dismantle them in such extreme historical detail that the focus shifts away from the arguments being refuted to the history itself. The subtitle of the book should probably be the title; the book is much more about the Christian revolution within Western history than it is about it's enemies. Though it does use those enemies as a jumping off point, essentially structuring the book as a response to various critiques, and juxtaposing these (mostly amateur, petulant) modern critiques to the, in some ways, much more sophisticated and legitimate critiques of great unbelievers of the past, most notably Nietzsche. Who, Hart claims, was one of the few who actually understood the gravity of exactly what it was he was opposing, and all the associated consequences. Whereas modern critics want to blithely reject Christianity while unknowingly clinging to it's moral remnants, despite rejecting the foundation that morality is built upon. Or they choose to cherish the scientific method above all else failing to recognize that it was only out of Christian societies that "science", as we understand it, came into being.

Hart goes into extensive historical detail revealing the ways in which the modern, secular narrative of Christianity's rise and influence over Western culture can not be adequately explained in the ways that many of the critics attempt to make sense of it. Hart examines in detail the ways in which these critic's narratives of Christianity in Western history i.e the "dark ages" of religion, virtuous paganism stamped out by dogmatic Christianity, burning of books, Christian suppression of science and intellectual advancement, "religious wars", and the light of secular modernity which saved us from all these etc. are either pure fictions, or are not exclusively or primarily attributable to Christianity and it's ideals (despite whatever extent they were attributable to Christians.)

He then goes on to give a detailed historical account of that which the modern critics, for the most part, don't even care to address or acknowledge; that being the unique, monumental, moral revolution in society attributable solely to Christianity. A moral revolution which we as modern peoples are heirs of, and which these same critics wholeheartedly embrace as a "humanism", unawares that such a "humanism" only became knowable, or even intelligible, through Christianity.

Though the whole book is aimed at rejecting certain arguments by atheists and secularists, Hart goes into such detail you sometimes lose sight of what argument it is he is refuting, and get immersed in a simple history of Christianity and the West. Which is fascinating stuff in it's own right, but the book excels the most when it focuses on it's targets (illegitimate, ignorant critiques of Christianity) and dismantles them. In these sections Hart is mercilessly acerbic, and it's truly beautiful stuff.

Atheist Delusions lays bare most of the conceits of the so-called 'New Atheists' handily, and without wasting space. No energy is expended attempting to exhaustively refute every claim of the 'New Atheists', many of which are irrelevantly true. Hart instead focuses on those that, if they were true, would be pretty devastating, and reveals them to be demonstrably false. All the while providing a thorough, illuminating perspective on the history of Christianity in Western culture and it's revolutionary nature.

Style footnote: Hart's prose is mostly excellent and very fun to read, though he at times sacrifices some degree of readability for overly ornate language.

Footnote #2: This article, which came out after his book, is what got me interested in the author's work. And it's on the same subject as the book, so check that out if you want an idea of what the book is like.

In Defense of Modern Epistemology

Let me begin by clarifying that I don't intend this defense of modernity to extend to every ideal, precept, or especially consequence of modernity. Indeed, many of those I find deplorable, inane or undesirable in various respects. This particular defense is only of the epistemological sort. My assertion is that, contrary to the movement in epistemology toward postmodernism, there is nothing wrong with modernity's scientific rationalism and verificationism, such as it is.

The perceived flaw in modernity's epistemology is largely just that; a (mis)perception. The central 'revolutionary' contribution of postmodernism to epistemology, which is supposed to wholly undercut modernity, is essentially the idea that modernity's scientific rationalism itself is built upon various unverifiable (and unfalsifiable) presuppositions and contingencies. Therefore, if the most 'objective' and 'rational' system of verification is itself not inherently rational or subject to verification, then verificationism as a whole must be without merit or import.

Presented in this way this argument reads very much like a modern rejection of modernity itself. Which is to say that postmodernism seeks to undercut modern epistemology using modern epistemology. Or, put another way: "There's no way to truly know anything, but we know modernity is wrong." Thereby reducing the contributions of postmodernism to nonsense.

Ignoring this irony for a moment, there is a problem with the argument itself. The premises are indeed all quite true, but the conclusion does not follow from those premises. Which is to say that modernity already understood the epistemological qualifications that postmodernism supposedly brought to light, and modernity had already fully accounted for and integrated these qualifications into it's systems of verification. At no point did modernity operate under the pretense that scientific rationalism necessarily revealed absolute truth (although many modern men may have), rather only that it could verify or falsify particular truths given a specific set of presuppositions, and operating within a particular framework. Thus postmodernism has contributed nothing to epistemology that modernity, properly understood, didn't already adequately incorporate within itself.

That doesn't mean that all conclusions of modernity are absolutely valid. On the contrary, modernism recognizes it's inherent limits. Limits that the postmodern movement arrogantly, and errantly, believes that it's exposing. Certainly any who took the advances of modernity and interpreted them in such a way to conclude, for example, that individual will is the utmost virtue, or that the only virtue is the annihilation of virtue, have taken the valid findings of modernity and misunderstood their implications. These conclusions do not flow inexorably from modern epistemology or it's findings. Granted, such misinterpretations are fairly widespread, but this fact does not undermine the validity of modern epistemology itself. It only goes to demonstrate that many modern peoples don't comprehend modernity or it's consequences.

Apart from the actual validity of postmodern epistemology, I also find the idea that there has been a massive epistemological shift in American culture, or in the "collective conscious", toward the postmodern to be a specious claim. People who tend to make this argument do so when looking at humanity from a broad perspective, as a collective, rather than as a sum of individuals. From the former perspective it's understandable how one could reach such a conclusion, as there are macro-scale changes in society that might suggest that this is the case (the explosion of the internet and all of it's epistemological consequences, for example). From the latter perspective, however, the claim seems to lack any support. While the culture itself might be experiencing a particular shift that does not necessarily mean that the individuals within that culture are shifting in the same direction. Or, if they are, not necessarily in direct proportion to the massive cultural shifts (that is; there may have been a minor, not major, shift). Culture is not merely an equitably weighted sum of all the perspectives contained therein, and even if it were that, our society and culture would remain decidedly modern. If postmodernism was as pervasive a cultural influence as some claim, people would live their lives very differently than they actually do live them.

To conclude I want to reiterate the disclaimer at the opening of this piece: my defense of modern epistemology is not a defense of modernity in total. There are many aspects of modernity worthy of decrying, epistemology just isn't one of those things.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and... N.T. Wright? - On Postmodernism

Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell often grabbed the spotlight of the media and drew the ire of their political and social opponents, as well as from many fellow Christians (undoubtedly amongst them liberal theologians such as N.T. Wright), when they made pronouncements about what they believe to be God's judgment. Such as when they made the claims that Katrina was God's judgment upon homosexuals, or 9-11 was God's judgment on America for it's sinfulness. Such statements are, for the most part, rightly renounced by the public. The key fallacy behind such statements is that they arrogantly presume to know God's will.

I stumbled on an old article by N.T. Wright yesterday on postmodernity and the proposed response for the church. As usual his Biblical scholarship is exquisite. He goes over the story of Christ visiting the disciples in Luke after his death and breaking bread with them before vanishing. He tells it with "musical accompaniment" from one of the Psalms. He goes on to describe the moment when the disciples realize who Christ is and their eyes become open, and juxtaposes it with a moment in Genesis after the fall when Adam and Eve's eyes become closed. All quite brilliant stuff.

What does any of that have to do with postmodernity and how we should respond to it? I'm not quite sure. He makes some allusions to how the two connect, but honestly it seems like he should have separated this into two different articles. The opening and closing of this piece are on postmodernity and the church, while the center is a piece of Biblical scholarship that seems to me mostly disconnected from the introduction and the conclusion. It's possible I'm just being obtuse but, in any case, I didn't really follow him here.

What struck me as particularly odd was Wright's claim that postmodernity is an outworking of God's judgment on the arrogance of modernity. How is such a claim, where Wright claims to know the will of God and claims that a particular event is the result of his judgment, fundamentally different from the types of statements made by Falwell and Robertson? My assertion is that there is no difference. Wright's claim is more cerebral and abstract, and it doesn't cynically play on tragedy, but the key fallacy is identical. Even if Wright were as visible a public figure as the other two, undoubtedly his statement would not strike people as being offensive because, again, it's more cerebral (a lot fewer people would even know what he's talking about), and because in this example Wright is claiming an extremely broad, general judgment that applies to the whole of mankind. Where Falwell and Robertson's statements claimed to know when God was judging specific sub-sets of humanity. Nevertheless, the underlying fallacy is the same.

As a second, mostly unrelated point, Wright's acceptance of postmodernity itself seems to be made on grounds that appear to be quite modern. His entire method of critique that he employs for evaluating postmodernity--wherein he concludes that we should not fear it but embrace it--is itself based in wholly modern epistemology. For example, he states with a great deal of certitude that "what we must not do, I believe, is pretend [postmodernity] hasn't really happened." But, if postmodernity does in fact hold sway, then there's really nothing that we must not do. Indeed, such a claim belongs to the arrogance of modernity which he has already renounced.

Wright goes on to assert that there are "no such thing as bare facts", and that postmodernity has revealed this to be the case. In other words he claims that it's a fact that there are no facts.

Directly after stating that postmodernity has undermined the validity of all "metanarratives", revealing them to be mere power games, he proceeds to introduce a coherent, linear metanarrative of his own which culminates in his revealing postmodernity to be a judgment upon mankind, and he expects us to accept his own metanarrative as valid and important.

Such is the absurdity of postmodernity.

I suppose within the nihilistic constructs of postmodernity you can create metanarratives while simultaneously denouncing metanarratives as inherently meaningless. You can make heavy-handed pronouncements about things that we "must" do, while simultaneously asserting that postmodernity has revealed that we need not do anything in particular. You can reject the arrogance of modernity while arrogantly, modern-ly asserting that modernity is dead, and that it's death is the result of God's judgment.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Life: Quality vs. Quantity

When discussing life quality and quantity often go hand-in-hand, or at least they are assumed to do so. And the vast majority of the time they do. Measures taken to extend your life almost invariably also enhance it's quality. More exercise and a healthier diet often results in a clearer mind, more energy and other things that are often associated with the quality of one's life. In other words, while quality and quantity in other contexts are often presented as having an inversely proportional relationship, in the case of life they typically have a directly proportional relationship. That is to say that in other contexts sacrifice of one means some gain of the other, while with life gain in one is usually considered a gain in the other as well.

However 'quality' can only fully be judged in the mind of the individual, whereas quantity can be, well, quantified. Any life decision you make has associated risks and rewards, many of which are known. For example, one study concluded that a smoker's life expectancy is 10 years less than that of a non-smoker on average. The value of our behaviors can therefore be objectively analyzed in terms of quantity of life.

The same is not true for quality, however. The reason is that although measures taken to extend life are often considered to be generally 'positive', not everyone may evaluate them on the same terms. It's possible, for example, for an individual to be so passionate about the exquisite cuisine that is the McDonald's Big Mac that he refuses to give it up, even if he is well aware that eating it will knock a couple of years off of his life expectancy relative to a healthier diet. It very may well be a sacrifice that he is willing to make. And who am I, or anyone else, to tell him that his evaluation is 'wrong'? Only he can fully weigh the value of quality against the quantity, because only he knows what it is that he values. Certainly he values his own life, but he may not value a 75 year life without Big Macs over a 72 year life with them.

Or consider a person who so abhors physical exercise, who isn't concerned with his physical appearance and who also doesn't mind the added risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. You can educate him on the 'value' of exercise all you want, he still is not going to exercise because the utility of not-exercising is worth more to him than the value of exercising. Neither is he necessarily 'wrong' in his evaluation, given his particular values and his particular physical state or metabolism.

So then the picture gets muddied a bit. We can't simply say that all measures that lengthen life also increase it's quality, because it turns out that is not the case for all people.

Furthermore, other individuals might not inherently value longer lifespans themselves. The Big Mac lover saw the desirability of living longer, but just apprised the taste of a Big Mac to be worth the sacrifice of some years of lifespan. For him it was a trade-off. Another individual might actually prefer a shorter lifespan, up to a point. At least in the abstract way that we are talking about. Someone might genuinely, truly feel that a life of 85 years is too long, and so might take deliberate steps to ensure that his or her lifespan isn't quite maximized.

While these are certainly exceptions to the general rule of thumb for attitudes toward life quantity/quality, they can't be dismissed. I feel that much of the advice dispersed by the media and the health industry to be dismissive of the values of individuals. Though they generally have good intentions, they often slip into self-righteous demagoguery as they assume a basis of shared values. Values that often are, in fact, shared by a great many people, but certainly not unanimously. And so they become the self-anointed do-gooders, here to save our minds and bodies, even those of us who have no interest in being 'saved'.

Health professionals often assume they have 'answers' for people even when they don't know the questions that people are asking themselves. People could be asking themselves any of the following important questions on a regular basis :

* How can I put food (healthy or otherwise) on the table for my family over the next 6 months?
* How can I fix my relationship with my spouse/parent/sibling/friend?
* How can I improve educational opportunities for my children?
* Should I change careers?
* Should I buy a house or rent?
* What is something I could do charitably for my community?
* Does God exist? / Who is God? / How is my relationship with Him?
et. al.

With "How can I tack some extra years onto my lifespan?" often being assigned a very low priority, or perhaps not being asked at all. Would you necessarily blame someone if such a question never or rarely arose given the gravity of everything else they could be asking themselves?

Thus I find the common wisdom regarding the primary importance of one's health to be lacking in a certain sense. In the most immediate sense of air and water, food and sustenance, yes health is extremely important, and everyone except the suicidal can agree on that point. Ditto with the importance of minimizing the likelihood of disease, or medically treating ailments as they appear. But in the sense of maximizing life expectancy or sacrificing certain comforts in order to make what could amount to minimal improvements, if they are improvements at all, to one's 'quality of life', the issue isn't that clear and depends on what we value as individuals.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Socio-biological "Morality" - On Humanism and Nihilism

There are two main moral camps under which you can classify atheists. Of course there are various shades and degrees within the respective camps, but there is a continuum upon which they all fall. On one end there is 'humanism' which extols various virtues and values such as justice, truth, altruism, love etc., as well as recognizing their opposites as evil. On the other end of the continuum is 'nihilism' which holds that there is no such thing as virtue or value, only arbitrary human preference. The vast majority of atheists in the world fall on the 'humanist' side of the continuum.

The humanist philosophy is internally contradictory and incoherent, while the philosophy of nihilism, which has exponentially fewer adherents, is actually fully coherent. I don't believe that either is true, but nihilism at least fully rejects the notion of values and morals as meaningful outright, while humanism attempts to retain these things, while simultaneously denying their foundation. Without an external authority to define them, values must be arbitrary personal preference, as the nihilist rightly claims. If values are arbitrary preference, then secularists must not recognize any act or belief as good, nor condemn any act or belief as bad. Yet this is exactly what the humanist does.

The scientific-minded modernist will undoubtedly interject at this juncture that morals have a natural, evolutionary, socio-biological origin, and can be understood in such a framework. However, even if you precisely understood the evolutionary origin of morality, that still doesn't get you to a reason to be moral. All it gets you is an explanation of the history of morality. But morality is ultimately the question of how we are to behave going forward, not an explanation of how we have behaved up to this point in time. So this objection is a canard; a socio-biological mutual-benefit understanding of morality does not yield any basis for values going forward, only a means for understanding the facts of how we have behaved in the past. The 'is' does not beget an 'ought'.

Is there any reason that I should be obliged to act in accordance with these innate socio-biological guidelines, rather than defy them? The scientific modernist would now say the reason to do so is that our socio-biological morality has developed in order to preserve order and ensure the survival and propagation of the species. But if I, as an individual, do not highly value any of these things (i.e. survival, the species etc.), then what basis do you have to tell me that my decision to act directly against these socio-biological moral structures is "wrong"? At this point the honest scientific modernist says "Well, you're right, there is no basis to do so, but as a society we can still enforce and uphold these values if we choose to." Which is a tacit submission of defeat; there is in fact no basis for values or morals outside of an external, divine order.

So the humanist necessarily concedes that values are arbitrary preferences, while continuing to assert forcefully that the environment must be protected, that homosexuals must be granted the right to marry, that racism is deplorable etc. Mr. Humanist, don't you actually mean: "racism is deplorable... or not"?

In one sense this refusal to jettison value is to the humanist's credit. In refusing to do so they are responding to a deeper, truer human impulse; the divinely-authored conscience. Their insistence on extolling certain values and virtues is only inconsistent with strict naturalist maxims, not with reality. It's perfectly consistent with reality. But their position is internally inconsistent and incoherent as it can't be reconciled in a world without objective value, which is the world which they claim to occupy. You can't get to "objective" anything without an ultimate authority, therefore they hold two beliefs (one implicit and one explicit) that are necessarily mutually exclusive.

The humanist might respond by saying that he realizes his values are merely subjective ways of thinking about things, but still chooses to hold them, which is of course fine. But if that were true then why would he feel the need to condemn any other way of thinking about something? Why condemn any other act? Why condemn Hitler and laud Gandhi, rather than state that which must be true: "here are two men who had different visions of the world", and nothing else? It's important to note here that in a socio-biological sense, even deviants and sociopaths are themselves hardwired socio-biologically. They simply represent an aberration to particular social norms. An aberration which itself could theoretically serve some socio-biological function, population control for instance. So if your basis for morality is based on evolutionary social mechanisms, then the aberrations can not be said to be any better or worse than the social norms themselves; they simply are what they are.

I think it's important to ask at this point "what is my goal in writing this"? Certainly it isn't to convince humanists to embrace nihilism, but rather to attempt to convey that the fact that you do hold particular values and believe in virtue is itself evidence of a divine creator. Socio-biological morality is at best an explanation of historical moral norms that have happened to arise, not a basis upon which you are to make moral judgments in the future, or decisions about how you should behave. As an atheist if you find some acts so repugnant they must be condemned, or other acts so virtuous they must be praised, then good, you ought to. Just realize that these feelings of yours can only have one of two possible origins: (A) purely naturalistic socio-biological norms, in which case the repugnant can't be said to be worse than the praiseworthy in any real sense other than your singular mind happens to feel that way, but rather must be recognized as an acceptable, natural deviation from the norm or (B) a divinely-authored conscience which allows all men to be able to distinguish good from evil, which in turn necessitates accountability for our words, actions and beliefs.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Paved Paradise - Man and 'Nature'

Environmentalists often decry the devastating effects that human beings have had on nature. The conception of this notion is curious in itself, for is not man part and parcel of nature? Every smokestack, every computer, every chemical, every oil spill, every parking lot; are these not all products and by-products of human beings (who are found in nature) fashioning elements taken from the Earth (the Earth being located within nature) to their own purpose? If this is the case then how can it be said that human industry results in the "destruction of nature", rather than a mere extension of nature?

Does a colony of ants "destroy" the "natural" position of grains of sand in order to construct an ant hill? You can well imagine the ant-environmentalist claiming as much. Does a bird's nest "disrupt" the "natural" arrangement of twigs that have fallen upon the ground by compiling them into a new structure with new utility? The Joni Mitchells and Cheryl Crows (hello, pun) of the bird world might well think so.

It's even more curious that most extremist environmentalists tend to hail from the secular left because they have even less conceivable reason to distinguish man as "apart" from nature in any way. Christians, for example, could conceivably say that human beings are, in a certain way, distinct from the rest of nature as they carry the imprint of the divine. This divine imprint resulting in free will (which is entirely foreign to the rest of nature) which allows humans to have effects on nature that fall outside the bounds of "natural", causal events.

I wouldn't necessarily accept this line of reasoning as I would say that human free will itself, though certainly unique and attributable to the divine, is still incorporated into nature. But the point is that within a Christian framework there are at least some workable objections to my argument. However, within a secular, naturalist framework there are zero workable objections. Man is just another animal, like an ant, fashioning natural elements to his own desires and purposes and is entirely indistinguishable from the rest of nature in any way. Leave the animal man alone in his natural habitat. Stand back and allow him to construct his very natural skyscrapers, freeways, oil rigs and parking lots in peace, unobstructed. To do anything else would be tantamount to the destruction of nature, the nature of man.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Nas and The Lotto

I switched my motto, instead of saying **** tomorrow/
That buck that bought a bottle could have struck the lotto/

- Nas

This line from Nas' classic debut album Illmatic always struck me as one of the best in Rap history. Both for what it's able to convey in a succinct fashion, as well as the aesthetic construction of the lines, both as written words and how they fit the beat.

However, it is worth noting that Nas suggests trading one bad habit for another. As any knowledgable gambler can tell you, the lottery is an atrocious value for your dollar. For every $1 you put in you stand to get back approximately $0.5, on average. So playing the lottery is ostensibly throwing away money. However, it's still a better value than $1 spent on liquor if that liquor is part of an alcohol problem, which costs the entire dollar with no expected return, and much expected loss even beyond the immediate financial cost. If he could have found a comparable, interesting, clever way to say "that buck that bought a bottle could have bought a sandwich" or "helped to start a business", then the line would have slightly improved.

Footnote: "****" is a 4-letter word which, in this context, means 'forget about', or 'to hell with'. In this context the language he uses is actually necessary and optimal as I can think of no comparable alternative that can fully capture the meaning. This choice of words also preserves the polysyllabic rhyme structure in sublime fashion.