Thursday, October 28, 2010

Christopher Hitchens and Christian Morality

I recently viewed a clip on youtube that was an extract from a debate with Christopher Hitchens. In the clip Hitchens is arguing against the morality of certain Christian principles. For example he argues that the call to follow and trust in Christ fully, without care for tomorrow, is immoral. He seems to believe that it's an irresponsible notion. Falsely, of course, but never mind. Of course if you don't believe that Christ was the only son of the one true and living God, then giving up everything to follow an eccentric first century Jewish rabbi would surely be folly. The reason that Hitchens' objection is novel and more worthwhile to engage with is that he says that this doctrine is immoral and would be even if he granted the central truth claims of the Christian faith. He lists the virgin birth and Christ's death and resurrection and says that he's "willing to grant all of it", and even then it still wouldn't make these doctrines moral.

One gets the impression Hitchens is trying to grab our attention. If God exists and Christ was his son whom he raised from the dead for our sins, then it seems to logically follow that the creator of the universe and the creator of morality would know a little bit about the subjects. When someone rejects these truth claims then it logically follows that they will also reject the morality that is derived therefrom. But when someone grants the truth claims and still rejects the morality that follows logically therefrom, then you have a novel and interesting claim.

However the reason it's novel is because it's baldly incoherent. If you grant the truth claims then you are necessarily granting that Christ is the creator of the universe. If you are granting that then you also necessarily must grant him all authority. If he has all authority then anything that he claims is moral is actually moral, regardless of how unpalatable Christopher Hitchens happens to find it to be. If the creator of humanity and the creator of morality says that morality is one thing, and one of his creatures says it's another, is there room for debate as to who is correct on the matter?

I have to imagine that Hitchens feels that granting the virgin birth and the death and resurrection of Jesus does not grant the entirety of Christian truth claims. That it doesn't necessarily follow from those facts (as he has graciously granted them to be) that, for example, God exists, is triune and created the universe. However there is hardly any other way to make sense of these facts, if facts they are granted to be. Just imagine a series of if-then statements that get us to our conclusion.

- If Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead then it was God who did it.
- If God rose Jesus from the dead, then God exists.
- If God exists and rose Jesus from the dead then God is the author of morality.

That's a fairly simple, linear, unobjectionable series of necessary postulates to Hitchens singular granted fact.

Hitchens is a self-described contrarian and provocateur, so I imagine he feels as if it's his place to challenge and confront us in unique ways. The Bible tells us there is nothing new under the sun, but granting Christian factual truth claims while rejecting its moral truths seems to be rather novel. Perhaps there's an implicit clause in the verse from Ecclesiastes. "There is nothing new under the sun--save specific examples of nonsense".

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

David B. Hart vs. The New Atheists

I'm a certified David B. Hart fanboy. I love reading his writings on any subject. But he's most prolific and noteworthy in his battles with the New Atheists. I've collected links to all of his articles at First Things on the subject, as well as one link to his book on the topic. Some of the links you have to be a subscriber to the magazine to access, but at least 2 of them are available to all.

The Desirist's Unsatisfiable Desires
Believe it or Not
Origin of the Specious
Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark
The Dawkins Evolution
Beyond Disbelief
Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

Hart's prose is phenomenal and I enjoy his haughty, provocative aesthetic. His penetrating insights cut to the heart of the matter and do so with finesse. He has a broad knowledge of history, encompassing not just the 'raw data' but a keen sense of how and why history works as it does. Hart is on the front line in the fight against the New Atheists, and consistently makes significant advances against their often unreflective and incoherent materialism.

One might ask why, as a Christian, we should expend so much energy bothering to refute atheist arguments? Rather than simply be a living example of Christ. We know the atheist is wrong, but arguments aren't going to convince them that they are. Especially not the entrenched, professional atheist who has so much at stake. So why bother?

There are a few important reasons we must contend with them directly. To meet them on the intellectual battlefield, as C.S. Lewis says. The first reason is that scientific-minded atheists are staking a claim to reality. The Christian faith is strongly grounded in historical, factual claims about physical events. Therefore our claims of what the facts of history are and how they are to be interpreted immediately and naturally conflict. But why try to argue the truth of Christ to a hardened heart? Indeed, but in this struggle there's more at stake than just the fate of the combatants in the ring. 'New Atheism', primarily in the form of anti-God literature, is a million dollar industry and is winning many converts with its gospel of lies, untruths and deceit. There are many sincerely undecided and educated people who are being convinced that Christianity is an intellectual and factual non-starter. So there is actually a lot at stake in confronting and refuting their arguments.

Beyond counteracting their anti-Gospel, it's also important that Christians be able to vigorously defend their faith for our own sake. We are called to test everything and hold on to the good. We can't allow that dangerous and false perception that Faith resides in one sphere, while fact and reason reside in another, and that the two things are unrelated, to fester and harden in people's minds. It's incumbent upon us to make clear the ways in which the two are inextricably related.

Of course there are various pitfalls that come with the territory. Pride can take over and winning arguments for your own self-satisfaction can become central, rather than the ultimate goal of glorifying Christ. But we don't have to fall prey to this. Rather we must allow fact and reason to be incorporated into our living testimony. How could they not be? Doing this often requires introspection and questioning of many of our own long held, traditional assumptions. Many times resulting in a new, deeper understanding of our own faith, as well as a more sound and convincing apologetic to share with others.

Friday, October 15, 2010

More on Atheism, Science and Morality

A few days ago I wrote a short response to Sam Harris' presentation at TED on the topic of how science can determine moral values. Then today David B. Hart's new article at First Things is on essentially the same topic. His is a response to an article on Philosophy Now by Joel Marks in which Marks--a former Kantian ethicist--has come to terms with the obvious: that morals can't exist without God. And since he is thoroughly convinced of the nonexistence of God, he is therefore compelled to reject the existence or morality. Yet he also can't resist the urge (it seems) to continue to make moral judgments, arguments and pronunciations, so he comically tries to justify a kind of amoral morality. Anyways, Hart's response piece is excellent as usual. I think the crux of the matter is brilliantly summarized in this excerpt from Hart's piece:

I am predisposed to think that real and uncompromising atheism, whose intrinsic “metaphysics” is real and uncompromising naturalism, always requires some element of magical thinking in all three of the classical or “critical” philosophical realms: ontology, epistemology, and ethics. But even if that is an unjust assumption, it seems to me hardly debatable that no purely naturalistic approach to ethics has ever succeeded in producing anything resembling a compelling or attractive moral imperative.

Choose whichever you like—standard utilitarianism, Rawls’s theory of justice, attempts to ground moral thinking in evolutionary biology or neurophysiology—you will always find, if you subject your preferred ethical naturalism to sufficiently unflinching scrutiny, that at some primal and irreducible point it must simply presume a movement of good will, an initial moral impulse that, with a kind of ghostly Gödelian elusiveness, can never be contained within the moral system it sustains. All the polyphony of nature falls mute when asked to produce one substantial imperative, unless one believes (explicitly or tacitly) that the voice of nature has its origin and consummation in the voice of God.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sam Harris, Science and Morality

Sam Harris has been making the rounds promoting his new book on how science can determine morality. I saw him on The Daily Show promoting it and someone also recently linked me to this presentation at TED by him on the same topic. While many atheistic champions of modernity begrudgingly concede the moral argument--that morals can not be made sense of without God--they instead assert that 'morality' is only a human construction. That morals are relative. That we create right and wrong, it doesn't exist out there somewhere waiting to be discovered and defined. Harris wants to attempt to rescue morality on behalf of secular modernity. He makes the argument that morals can be made sense of based on naturalistic causality. By understanding the facts and applying reason to them. And that, given enough time and analysis, with all facts properly understood and accounted for (mostly in the field of neuroscience), morality can be defined precisely and exactingly by science.

While Sam Harris makes many statements that I essentially agree with in this argument--most specifically that moral questions do have right and wrong answers--the manner he goes about arriving at that conclusion is sloppy at best, and a complete non sequitur at worst. Throughout the presentation he uses a fallacious appeal--not to science, which he hardly gets into at all--but to supposed common sense or things that are 'obviously true'. Without ever showing why these supposedly obvious things are actually true. And while in almost every instance I agree with his common sense conclusion, there is groundwork laid in our collective conscious which is largely responsible for what we consider to be 'obviously true'. In many cases the 'obvious' answers that he points to are not deductions from scientific fact and reasoned argument but from a moral mindset inherited from Christianity. Of course post-Enlightenment it has taken various non-Christian forms, but it is the Christian event in history (along with the God-authored conscience) which informs and creates that moral sense. To be fair this doesn't invalidate his argument, my point is only that the argument is imprecise, dishonest and manipulative. The heart of his argument has another problem altogether.

Even if science could determine, for example, the objective answers for how to achieve maximum happiness for the greatest number of people it still won't have solved the problem of morality. It still won't have accounted for or dismissed the Ted Bundys or Islamic fundamentalists and their 'obviously wrong' answers. Harris is implicitly asserting a philosophical presupposition that has not been affirmed by science and couldn't ever be. Namely that the goal of this life is to live for as long as possible and to achieve maximum happiness for the most people while minimizing suffering for the most people. This is not the end of a syllogism, this is not a scientific fact, this is an assumption of Harris'. It's his starting point. And if the Taliban or Ted Bundy or the entire planet reject this presupposition out of hand, which they are entirely within their rights to do given an atheist worldview, then there is nothing compelling them to abide by the 'correct conclusions' of a materialist moral calculus. If they believe that the point of life is to cause death and destruction rather than to facilitate life and happiness then the atheist has no means for telling them that they are wrong, other than their own personal opinion. No amount of scientific data, no matter how comprehensive or conclusive, could ever show them to be necessarily wrong. All that Harris can (theoretically, though probably not actually) do is say 'Here are the guidelines to follow that best assist in humans flourishing and thriving'. Which A) is irrelevant to those who do not find value in humanity flourishing and thriving and B) is not an instance of science answering all moral questions, it is science answering a particular moral question given a presupposition of materialistic, humanistic utilitarianism. A presupposition that science has not and could never validate via empiricism and reason.

Science is the study of what physically is; morality is the question of what should be. What kind of world we want to fashion, how we should treat people, what we ought to do, what we ought not to do etc. Harris mentions in his argument the traditional view of many Western modern thinkers. That they accept that science can not determine morals or values. Harris then simply asserts--rather than demonstrates--that science can in fact answer these questions. When in reality the traditional view is exactly correct and Harris does nothing to refute or even address this traditional understanding. As David Hume put it "You can not get an ought from an is."

Monday, October 4, 2010

'The Social Network' review

Facebook: The Movie. Doesn't sound like the most compelling premise for a film. It actually sounds like one of Hollywood's really bad ideas that would be marketed to teens, be directed by some studio hack and stars Justin Timberlake. Well, it did end up starring Justin Timberlake. Other than that, though, it completely defies expectations.

Then again my expectations were a lot different once I heard that the script was written by Aaron Sorkin and the film was directed by David Fincher, who is my favorite living director. At that point my interest in the film heightened immensely. Once the trailer came out I was even more intrigued. It looked to be a serious film exploring themes of weight and significance. And finally, once the early critical reviews began to hit--with the consensus being that it was one of the best films of the year, with reviewers making comparisons to Citizen Kane, Network and Rashomon--my anticipation peaked. For the most part the film didn't disappoint, though it may not have reached the lofty heights that many reviewers marked out for it.

The film follows the rise of Mark Zuckerburg, a Harvard student computer-programmer-slash-hacker, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in a mesmerizing performance. The story is told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, alternating between the events surrounding the creation of Facebook and later depositions of lawsuits where Zuckerburg is being sued. The press leading up to the release of the film made it seem like the film would be a harsh and supremely unsympathetic portrayal of Zuckerburg, though it didn't strike me as such. Sure, he's young, brash, arrogant, and makes some mistakes, but none so egregious that they can't be understood or easily forgiven. If the film is unfairly critical of Zuckerburg then he must be a saint in real life.

Meanwhile, to counterbalance his faults, he's crafty, insightful, driven and talented. Moreso than any of his friends or competitors, and it's these attributes that end up putting him on top. Not intellectual property theft. Not dastardly, ruthless business tactics. But his own abilities, combined with being in the right place at the right time. Of course not everyone sees the film this way, which is the first sign of a great piece of art. Many see in Zuckerburg and his deeds the exact opposite of what I've just described.

Fincher turns in one of his most subtle and straightforward pieces of direction here. In most of his films his direction comes to the forefront and makes itself known, but not here. Though his usual dark palette is still present, and his work is no less deft. This was probably a conscious decision which allowed the brilliant script of Sorkin's to shine. The script features an electrifying pace which propels the film along and keeps tension in the proceedings. It's witty, funny and exciting. Considering what the film is about, where it's set, and all the other on-paper statistics about it, it easily could have been a very dry and dull film, but it isn't. And the cast successfully breathes life into the material. With Eisenberg leading the way everyone else follows suit; the film features many fine performances. Most of the characters being fairly unlikable in their own unique way, but at the same time compelling in that unlikability.

An underappreciated element of the film is probably the score by Trent Reznor. It's very strange, and in it's strangeness, as well as the fact that it works very well, it reminds me of the score from There Will Be Blood. It causes the film to kind of palpitate and pulse, but not in an unearned way.

I will offer one piece of criticism that kind of goes against the grain. Many reviewers singled out the opening scene as being one of the best of the film, usually stating that for a basic dialogue scene it was exhilarating and brilliant. I actually felt that the opening scene was one of the weakest things about the film, though I see what it is that people liked about it. I imagine the people who loved it are also fans of Gilmore Girls, Juno-type, ultra-snappy, too-witty, unrealistic dialogue. But it just comes off as pretentious to me. The dialogue itself is actually fine, but Sorkin's script is too cute here with how it's structured. Perhaps it's preferable to a more traditional dialogue structure in that it is more lively, but the novelty is outweighed by the fact that it's annoying and showy. Luckily for me this trend doesn't hold for most of the film. The script stays sharp and fresh throughout without being cute and drawing attention to itself.

The film is primarily a psychological profile of Zuckerburg, but it has some larger concerns as well. While you're watching it you might not notice it, but when viewed from the outside you can see that the film is making social commentary on this new moment in history. About technology and how we relate to each other. It's best encapsulated in Sean Parker's statement that "We used to live on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we'll live on the internet!" It's a seemingly ominous declaration, but there's at least an element of truth to it, if not a great deal of truth. Why is this the case? Should this be the case? Should I embrace this change or rage against it? What significance does it have for humanity going forward? What is different about this new kind of social living from the social living of days past? Are these channels of communication more or less direct? How do these changes affect everything about our lives? These are some of the things the film causes you to think about when reflecting on it, though not necessarily while watching it. The Social Network is a phenomenal film that is primarily a smart, funny, witty piece of entertainment, but is also an observation on the first step of the next evolutionary phase of human socialization.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

World Record and Will Ferrell

Aydin, Elizabeth and I broke a world record today with the help of Will Ferrell. We broke the record for the most costumed superheroes gathered together in one place. The event was put together to promote the release of the animated film Megamind which stars Ferrell. We went dressed as Supergirl, Supergirl and Superman respectively.

We had a lot of fun seeing the other costumes of other people, taking pictures with some of them, and getting our picture taken by a lot of different people, websites, and news organizations. The highlight of our day had to be when Will Ferrell came out on stage, he came right up next to us and I got to shake his hand. Aydin was stoked to get that close to 'Buddy the Elf'.

The DJ was playing dance music and Aydin drew large crowds as she was showing off her phenomenal dance moves and cuteness. She was the only person dancing and everyone with a camera wanted to capture the magic.

Reuters interviewed our family which was fun too. The event featured free food and some carnival games as well. The head of Dreamworks movie studio Jeffrey Katzenberg as well as the director of the film came out and greeted the crowd. The climax was when Will Ferrell came out and announced that we had indeed broke the world record. We smashed the previous record of 1501 with an astonishing number of.. 1580. OK, so we barely broke it. A world record is still a world record.