Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lack of Evidence

The most common argument given by atheists today for not believing is the 'lack of evidence' argument. The argument is, essentially, that since there exists no positive evidence of God's existence there is no good reason to believe in him. This argument has some problems.

If God exists, would we expect to see anything other than what we do in fact see? Is there any reason that we should expect him to, perhaps, materialize and reveal himself in some visible or audible form regularly? Or perhaps to have left a signature of 'Yaweh' engraved in every stone? I don't believe there is any reason we should expect evidence of this sort. Further, if God exists and is the creator of the world then everything--every bird, every tree, every star, every galaxy, every human and every atom-- is evidence of his existence. With this being the case the statement that 'There is no evidence for God' becomes quite meaningless. It's merely a re-statement of disbelief in other terms. If He exists then all is evidence. If he doesn't then there is no evidence. Whether or not something constitutes evidence depends on whether he exists.

"Well, you could make the same argument for The Flying Spaghetti Monster!"

If you define 'The Flying Spaghetti Monster' to be the transcendent, immaterial, atemporal being that created the cosmos then, yes, that's true. But all you've done in that case is given God a new and peculiar moniker. God--even if he didn't exist, but merely in conception--is not a thing amongst things. He is not even an idea like any other idea. He is a category unto himself which is why analogies to unicorns, Santa Clause, FSM or Abraham Lincoln don't work.

As you can see the argument falls flat on its face. And this is before even discussing the fact that, at least for the Christian faith, all manner of geological, historical, astronomical and physical evidence can be marshalled in favor of its specific truth claims, while there exists no sorts of evidence that controverts them, or at least that nothing that is irreconcilable with them.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Westboro Baptist and The First Amendment

If you've been living under a rock Westboro Baptist is the 'church' that goes around protesting military funerals proclaiming that American soldiers die because God is punishing America, primarily for its tolerance of homosexuality. I always thought soldiers died because their job involves dodging enemy bullets and bombs, but I could be mistaken. According to the Phelps gang, if America were to become more strongly anti-homosexual soldiers would stop dying in the line of duty or at least would do so at a lower rate. There's no real way to test this hypothesis, of course, but let's just say it seems quite dubious on its face.

As despicable as the beliefs of Westboro Baptists are, lots of people believe many strange things and often the best response is to ignore the crazies. However, in this case, much worse than what they believe is the way they go about attempting to spread their message--namely by verbally abusing the families of fallen heroes.

If you haven't had a chance to do so, I would strongly recommend reading Samuel Alito's dissent in the recent Westboro Baptist First Amendment case (Snyder v. Phelps). Alito was the lone dissenter in an 8-1 Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist's right to verbally abuse the family of Matthew Snyder--a soldier who died serving in Iraq--at the site of his funeral. The issue, by the way, wasn't whether the Phelps gang should be arrested and jailed, but whether Snyder's family, after receiving the verbal abuse, could sue Westboro Baptist for the injurious comments they had made and seek restitution. Though I agree with David Bentley Hart's observation that "in the 1780s, any rabble behaving as the Westboro people do would have been arrested, incarcerated, and fined and no one would have thought this an abridgement of their chartered rights" [emphasis added].

I think a lot of people conceive of the 'Freedom of Speech' as being something that is almost absolute. We may be vaguely aware of types of speech that aren't protected--slander, libel, yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater--but aside from that we tend to think that anyone can say anything anywhere, and the First Amendment protects that right. And while the precedents in the courts may affirm this very broad interpretation, that doesn't mean it's the best one, or that it was always interpreted this way. In fact Hadley Arkes argues convincingly against the broad interpretation, and notes that its origin is only about 40 years old.

Switching gears, I'd like to end with a moral footnote, putting aside the issue of legality for a moment. Not that any civilized person needs to be convinced that Westboro's actions are revolting, but I thought that Christopher Benson had an insightful comment (which appeared in a piece on a different subject) on the precise reason why their actions are so vile and repugnant:

No living person has undergone the descent of Christ into hell, and therefore we must never count who is there. What makes the hell-counters of Westboro Baptist Church so odious is that they feign the Cross’ knowledge without undergoing the Cross’ torture.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Moral Obligations to Specific Future Persons

In a recent article at First Things Joe Carter argues that single Christians have a moral obligation, not just to God, but to their future spouse to sexual fidelity. This may seem obvious to some Christians, and the reasoning for it should be equally obvious. Our past actions have consequences for our present and our future and actions we take even before meeting someone can be hurtful to future persons.

I was first prompted to think through the issue by the film Chasing Amy by Kevin Smith about a decade ago. It has been a long time since I've seen the film but the central 'moral' to the story is that Ben Affleck's character is just being foolish in harboring feelings of jealousy and resentment about his current girlfriend's sexual past. The logic goes: since she didn't know him then and she loves him now, what relevance can those past actions have? How could it be a slight to him if she didn't even know him when she was doing it? I am with you now, I love you, and that's all that matters.

This moral struck me as simplistic and naive, and the feelings of Affleck's character in the film seemed to be completely natural and even justified, contrary to what the film was claiming--though it is correctly pointed out that he is being a hypocrite as he too had a sexual past. But in this case being a hypocrite means they are both bringing sexual, emotional baggage to the relationship that can cause these problems. That doesn't make his feelings of hurt wrong or unjustified. If anything it brings up the question of why the female character didn't harbor similar feelings about his past. The movie would say that it's because she's more experienced, grown up and enlightened and has gotten over those petty, teenage inclinations and come to the realization that it's who you love and are committed to now that matters. The past is gone and it has no ramifications on the present. But in reality she's morally and spiritually calloused because of her 'experience' whereas he is still more susceptible due to his relative innocence (in the movie she has an extensive, exotic past whereas he has a more 'normal' past of a handful of girlfriends, I believe).

The negative effects of past sexual experiences on future relationships is evidence that we are not built to function in this polygamous way. And secular people who conceive of monogamy as either a good thing, or good for some people, only view it in a temporal sense. You can be monogamous with one person, then with another, then with another. But this is really just atemporal polygamy. Those past relationships don't cease to exist as part of the person that you are the moment that they are terminated. They are still a part of you and they still have the ability to negatively affect your subsequent relationships.

God doesn't hand down his Law arbitrarily. It has a purpose and the purpose is for our benefit. Despite the fact that it was a secular film preaching a secular gospel, Chasing Amy got me to think about these issues and though the film doesn't realize it, it has an important message. The message is that the secular world thinks it's intelligent and healthy to bury, ignore, or write off as foolish feelings of hurt, jealousy, anger and resentment that previous sexual experiences and intimate relationships can evoke in present ones. Whereas God would say that because past relationships do have the capacity to wreak this kind of havoc on the present and the future (which can only be circumvented through callousness) that we should have fidelity to only one person--not one person at a time--for our whole lives. Which makes more sense? Which seems to be the better solution? If it's God's solution that is more healthy and beneficial for humanity then the evidence that Christianity is true and good continues to mount.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Love Wins. Justice Wins. God Wins. - A Review

One of the few positive things I have to say about Love Wins by Rob Bell is that it lives up to the hype. Bell's view-- especially on hell, God and the cross--really should be considered quite controversial in Christian circles. Considering that most of the hype started prior to the release of the book there was a decent chance that Bell wasn't saying anything too controversial, and instead he and his publishing company were just creating hype for the book's release. I thought that to be a distinct possibility, anyways. But it turns out he really is making some highly controversial claims, so in this sense the book does live up to the hype.

There are at least two ways one can go about writing a compelling, controversial Christian book. The first way would be to challenge some widely held traditional understandings on these matters by careful, thoughtful, exegesis of scripture, along with persuasive argumentation that the traditional view is in some sense incomplete, or perhaps even wrong. Then there's Rob Bell's way. Which mainly consists of posing challenges to traditional understandings of Scripture in a highly impressionistic, exegetically inept, and sometimes logically incoherent manner, while caricaturing and misrepresenting the traditional understanding of scripture.

While these are the central problems with the book--it's low view of scripture and tradition, its speculation in place of exegesis, its logical weaknesses--I think many others have covered these in greater detail than I could ever hope to, so I will continue the review by focusing on aspects that are also problematic but which I don't think have been covered as thoroughly--though I will briefly touch on the main problems as well.

In addition to the problems mentioned above, Bell's motivation also seems to be a problem. His motivation in writing often seems to be to make excuses for the sinful rejection of God.

[That Jesus is divine, eternal and created all things] is an astouding claim, and one that causes many to get off the bus at the nearest stop. Too out there, too mythic, premodern or superstitious to be taken seriously in our modern world. Haven't we evolved past such nonsense. God became man?

It's a common protest and it's understandable.

However unpalatable it is for modern sensibilities, it is true. We shouldn't, we aren't even allowed to, make concessions or accommodations on this point. It's an 'understandable' protest? Not really. It's foolish and evidence of a hardened heart or hardened mind that needs to be lovingly disabused of its false conception of what constitutes truth.

I've written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn and their heart to utter those resolute words "I would never be a part of that."

Let's for a moment put aside the fact that people's own sinful nature can cause them to react this way to the true Gospel, not a false Gospel. His argument seems to be that because people have different conceptions of God, because people bring baggage to the idea of God, because people sometimes have a 'false God' preached about in church, that therefore we can't be held accountable for our rejection of 'God'. Bell treats all of these as legitimate excuses--not to reject the false gods and false Christs-- but to reject Christ himself. Some baggage is apparently insurmountable in this life, and so these people are politely exempted from responsibility or accountability for their actions and beliefs. Seems reasonable and Biblical enough, right?

There are such things as false gods and false prophets. The Bible says that there are and it seems Bell acknowledges as much when it comes to Christians who preach false doctrines, or Christians who paint a false image of God by not behaving in a Christ-like matter. It seems that wayward Christians definitely have the potential to portray God in a false way, or to be false prophets. True enough, Bell definitely has that right. To hear Bell tell it, however, at least in other parts of the book, there are only differing ways that God reveals himself to humanity--not false ways. While most Christians would affirm the notion that God can reveal himself in many other ways in addition to Scripture, Bell seems to think that this means that any response by humans to any god in any manner are actually instances of humans responding to the true (but hidden) God in a proper manner. Which is a massive non sequitur. Just because God can and does reveal himself in many ways, does not mean that all human conceptions or responses to his revelation are good and right responses. Sometimes the responses will be improper and sinful. Sometimes the 'revelation' itself will be a false god or false prophet. And no, this doesn't require my personal view of what is and is not a good and proper response to be true, it only means that right and wrong responses--as well as true and false 'revelations'-- do exist.

Bell makes a point to celebrate seeming paradoxes about the nature of God a couple times in this book, rather than treat them as problems that need a solution. Fair enough. Yet Bell treats the notion of God being just and gracious as untenable. He thinks God's wrath and God's love are incompatible. He thinks that Jesus can't save us from God's wrath, because Jesus is God. The merry postmodernist, who celebrates God's mystery and paradoxical nature, can't reconcile these aspects of God? They are logically incompatible? Really? Not to mention that, with respect to God's mercy and wrath, one doesn't even need to shrug it off as a mystery or a paradox. God is merciful and wrathful, loving and just. There is no contradiction here.

The most controversial aspect of the book is probably Bell's conception of hell, and what it reveals about God's character. I think the lack of a scriptural basis for his views has been well documented, so in order to keep this review shorter I will defer to others on this matter, except to highlight one thing. The only book Bell cites for 'further reading' on the topic of hell is C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. Which is a work of fiction and speculation as to how heaven-hell could possibly operate, not how they do, certainly, Biblically operate. The reason the book is widely appreciated by Christians is because it is a work of fiction and acknowledges that it is speculating about the machinations of the afterlife. If Bell were to correctly pronounce his own views on hell to primarily be speculation--or better yet, fiction--I don't think they would cause as much consternation as they have. But even as speculation Bell's views would still be problematic because they seem to contradict scripture directly.

In addition to all these problems, as well as the more central ones addressed by others, I think the book also has a problem of tone. Bell's tone, if not his actual argument itself, often comes off as placating non-believers by suggesting that Christianity is something entirely different from what they've been lead to believe and that's why they reject it. While that might be true for some people, or it might be true in some small sense for a lot of people, many other people reject Christianity for what it truly is. Disabusing people of false conceptions is all well and good, but Bell aims to do that by caricaturing and misrepresenting more traditional understandings of the faith. His methodology seems to be: 1) consider what keeps people from coming to the faith (a good thing to do), 2) re-evaluate that aspect of the faith (also very good), 3) if it's some misconception that does need corrected in his view, attempt to address it (still fine and good), and lastly 4) if the stumbling block is something that is an intractable, non-negotiable aspect of Christianity, downplay it, redefine what it means or pretend like it doesn't exist (a very bad thing to do). As Christians we should go as far as we can to attempt to bring the Gospel to the lost--but not so far that the Gospel ceases to be the Gospel.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chess, Poker and the Fate of Our World

Most games experts hold that Chess is the most sophisticated, intricate and elegant of popular competitive games. That it's the most complex and difficult to master. That it requires the highest level of comprehensive intelligence to play well at the highest levels. Not that I'm an expert, but this always struck me as intuitively true, and I'm not questioning this intuition now.
However, imagine that tomorrow our world was invaded by aliens of apparently sophisticated intelligence. They communicated to our leaders that the only way to stop them from subjugating and enslaving mankind would be for one of our humans to defeat a computer they had programmed at either Chess or No Limit Hold Em Poker (with deep stacks), and we could choose which game we would play. Since Chess is the most complex, sophisticated, elegant, and difficult of games then many people would likely conclude that our best chance at defeating the computer is in Chess, but they would be wrong.

In reading a profile of Norwegian Chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen in this week's New Yorker, it is mentioned that the best modern Chess programs are effectively unbeatable. No human opponent can match the computer's raw computational power. Since Chess is a game of complete information, the computer need only look at the board at any juncture of the game, compute all possible permutations of moves 10, 20, 30 steps ahead, and then choose the strategically optimal move. An opponent that never makes a mistake is almost possible to beat.

Conversely Poker is a game of incomplete information. In Hold Em your opponent's two hole cards are unknown. Thus, though there are many mathematical fundamentals involved in the game; and though computers can be programmed for pattern recognition, to get a 'read' on human opponents; the psychological aspect of the game combined with the incomplete information makes it a tough nut to crack for the computer. Which is why, even with the awesome computational power of today's computers, the best No Limit Hold Em players can still beat the best NLHE artifical intelligence, as far as we can tell. Though the NLHE AI is always being worked on and improved, so this won't always necessarily be the case. The important point is that, for the computer, Chess is an easier nut to crack.

I'm not saying that big-bet poker is an inherently better, or more sophisticated, or more difficult game than Chess. All I'm saying is that if the Fate of the World ever depended on us beating a computer at one game or the other, we should definitely send Phil Ivey in to play the computer at No Limit Hold Em, rather than take the suicidal option of trying to beat a computer at chess.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Homophobia and Christianity

I recently saw a statistic that said that 91% of non-Christian young people (I suppose this means something like those under 30) view evangelical Christians as homophobic. The person who cited this statistic said that this should sadden evangelicals and that it is not a wholly unfounded opinion, given the behavior of evangelicals towards the homosexual community.

Now, certainly Christians have not behaved with perfect Christ-like love toward the homosexual community, and there is always room for improvement on this count. Any Christian that treats homosexuals badly is without excuse, and whoever is guilty of this should certainly repent. However, should the 91% statistic really trouble us as Christians? I don't necessarily think that it should for two reasons.

First is that people often say 'homophobic' when they don't actually mean 'homophobic' especially when answering a question in a survey about a faceless, abstract group of people. That is to say many non-Christians use the term 'homophobic' to apply to anyone who takes any issue with homosexuality whatsoever, rather than only to those who 'fear and/or hate homosexuals', which is the proper definition of the term. If the vast majority of non-Christians use the term to mean 'any person who does not fully approve of all aspects of homosexual lifestyle/behavior', as I believe is probably the case, then we should be quite happy to have 100% of non-Christians apply that term to us, if that's what they understand it to mean.

Secondly, even if we have full assurance that the responders to the question are using the term 'homophobic' in its proper sense, there is still the fringe lunatic effect on popular perception that must be accounted for. Those Christians who are extremely vocal and strident in their disapproval of (and disproportionate concern about) homosexuality are the ones that get portrayed in the media and become the model for what people think of when they think of 'Christians' and 'homophobia'. This effect combined with the fact that almost all Christians believe homosexuality is a sin is more than enough to cause non-Christians to link 'Christian' and 'homophobic' in their mind--none of which reflects anything negative about the vast majority of Christian's beliefs or actions as they pertain to the homosexual community. Thus, the statistic should not come as a surprise, nor does it suggest that the vast majority of Christians need to change anything about their attitudes, beliefs or behaviors with regard to homosexuals and homosexuality.

I don't know about you but I can hardly remember homosexuality being preached about from the pulpit. I've heard many, many more sermons about sexual sin in general and heterosexual sin specifically. Is it common at your church on a Sunday to hear small talk, while waiting for a donut or coffee, about "these queers destroying our society"? It never was at any church I've ever been to. Aside from the real nutjobs, like Fred Phelp's church, the worst that can be said about some Christians and Christian organizations is that they expend a slightly excessive amount of energy and capital on anti-same-sex-marriage rhetoric and ballot initiatives. So a possible problem of priorities. Maybe. At worst.

The official position of most Christians is that homosexual sin is a sin like any other--including heterosexual sin--and their actions towards homosexuals in the majority of cases reflect that belief. Virtually no Christians are out campaigning to keep homosexuals out of their congregations. Virtually no Christians are proposing ballot initiatives to make public displays of homosexual affection illegal. Virtually no Christians are advocating, either implicitly or explicitly, hatred of homosexuals. Virtually no Christians believe homosexuality is a worse sin than any sexual sin, or act as if it is. Virtually no Christians encourage or commit violence against homosexuals. All Christians believe that God loves sinners--even if he hates sin--and thus believe that they are called to love sinners (and thus homosexuals). The vast majority of Christians don't need to undergo any intense reflection or repentance on this topic because the vast majority of Christians already have it right. Which is not to say that we always act in accordance with these principles perfectly or that we couldn't be more pro-active about acting out that love, of course, but it is to say that the 91% figure reflects much more about the responders to the survey, a fringe minority of Christians, and the media than it does about the vast majority of Christians.

Though I should qualify this by noting there may be an age and geographical prejudice in my perception. In parts of the deep south and among teenager (or very old) Christians, for example, the anti-homosexual rhetoric or fear or hatred may be far more pronounced. Though, even accounting for this bias, I think this effect is not enough to change what I've claimed to be generally true.

"But what about the vast majority of evangelical Christians being opposed to same-sex marriage?"

First off, the rhetoric used in this question is loaded. Christians are only opposed to same-sex marriage as a logical corrolary of the fact that they are in favor of traditional marriage. 'Same-sex marriage' is effectively collateral damage of a pro-traditional-marriage perspective, rather than the end itself. Secondly, to the extent that Christians do oppose same-sex marriage, what of it? Is opposing same-sex marriage inherently 'homophobic'? I would argue that it isn't. Being in favor of traditional marriage is completely compatible with being loving toward the homosexual community.

"But how is it loving if you're denying them their basic right to equality under the law?"

Because we aren't. Homosexuals, in all 50 states, can obtain marriage licenses already. Right now. Today. Yes, in some states in order to do it they have to find someone of the opposite sex to enter into a marriage license with, but marriage licenses do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation explicitly. There is no section on a marriage license that looks like this: "MARK ONE: [ ] Heterosexual, [ ] Homosexual". No individual's rights are currently being violated as all individuals have equal access to the institution. Also, note that this is not analagous to the situation with interracial marriage when it was illegal. At that time certain men couldn't marry certain women and thus equal access to the institution was denied on illegitimate grounds, whereas today any kind of woman can marry any kind of man--of any race, religion or sexual orientation.

In addition, an entirely analagous question can be formulated in this manner: "How is it loving if you're denying those without driver's licenses equal protection under the law?" Yes, those without driver's licenses are treated different under the law than those with them. Yes, those without marriage licenses are treated differently under the law than with them. Neither driving nor marriage is a fundamental right. Equal access to them must be granted in a sense (though the senile and those with very poor eyesight are routinely 'discriminated against' at the DMV), which it is, but equal treatment of those who do not choose to abide by the guidelines of the road, or the guidelines of the definition of marriage, is not required of the law in order to be fair. It is entirely within our right as a society to make these judgments and requirements and it does not violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Public safety is not the sole guiding principle that society is 'allowed' to consider when defining the parameters of a particular institution or license.

I'm sure many would find this to be a disingenuous or semantical argument, but if the issue is equal protection and the government's enumerated duties, then it is entirely valid. Even if you don't accept this argument, though, then at worst some large percentage of evangelicals (though not all of them) are in favor of denying homosexuals their 'right' (which isn't a right) to marry. Which is so devious a belief as to have virtually no practical detrimental effect on any person's life anywhere, whatsoever. A lost tax benefit here or there not withstanding, in the majority of states (and especially those housing the largest populations) homosexuals can still legally cohabitate, adopt, partake in 'marriage' ceremonies, obtain hospital visitation rights, file joint tax returns, etc. I have little patience for the notion that this dire state of affairs amounts to some substantive civil rights violation. If you're truly concerned about homosexuals and serious human rights violations then print yourself some educational materials and board the next flight to Ghana and get to civilizing the savages.

In conclusion I don't think any widespread rebuke or widely held negative belief about a group of persons--in this case evangelicals-- is necessarily indicative of any wrongdoing on the part of that group. There are many prominent factors that influence popular perception which are unrelated to the group's beliefs or behavior. To the extent that Christians have treated homosexuals unfairly or without Christian love we do need to repent and ask forgiveness and to right our ways. But we also need to be mindful of, and account for, the corrosive tendency of fringe elements and sensationalized media to paint false images and so to misrepresent who and what we actually are to begin with. And also to not forget the possibility that, even if we were to act in perfect accordance with our mandate to love our neighbor (and thus the homosexual community), this will never be enough in the eyes of the world as they take issue with our very essence and mission as Christians. Our job is not to be pleasing to their sight but to God's.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

David B. Hart on Dawkins, Evolution and Design

This is an excerpt from the unedited version of the essay Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark. The version of the essay that appears online is truncated, presumably for length reasons by the editors of First Things. I assume that this paragraph was clipped because it is somewhat tangential to the subject of the essay, but I found it to be one of the more exhilarating parts of the essay. The full essay appears in Hart's essay collection In The Aftermath.

Richard Dawkins--unencumbered as he is by any philosophical training or aptitude--has an obliging habit of placing his largest logical errors either in the opening paragraphs or on the covers of his books. The subtitle of his already solecistically entitled The Blind Watchmaker informs us that "the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design"; a claim that seems superficially in keeping with his frequently reiterated assertion that what we find when we look at the evidence of biological evolution is precisely what we should expect to find if we assume that the entire process is governed by nothing but random chance. But, in fact, while the latter claim is true, the former is only a false inference drawn from it. It is, after all, one's prior expectations that are always at issue. For what one sees when one looks at the evidence of evolution is also what one might expect to find if one assumes that the entire process is the consequence of a transcedent intelligence drawing all things from nothingness and endowing them with form according to an internally coherent sequences of causes and a collection of magnificently intricate mathematical laws. All judgments regarding final causality--chance, design, necessity and so on--are, by virtue of their quite irreducible ultimacy, metaphysical in nature. They reflect the primordial convictions of the observer, not his impartial conclusions; they may appear to be valid deductions in the eyes of the philosophically naive, but in fact they concern that which lies outside the system of immanent causation that the material sciences investigate. ... The question of which judgments of finality are most plausible can be answered only metaphysically, for ultimately it is the question of whose primordial convictions are most rational and defensible (a standard according to which, happily, the strict materialist must always lose).

- David B. Hart, In The Aftermath

Friday, March 11, 2011

'The Moral Landscape' by Sam Harris - Review

Having followed the release of the book and some of the debates surrounding it I felt obliged to dutifully familiarize myself with the material if I wanted to engage in the discussion in good faith, and so I have.

Near the beginning of The Moral Landscape Harris identifies two groups of individuals who he knows will take issue with the argument he intends to present. On the one hand there are religious people who believe that moral values have a transcendent source and orientation and that therefore science can't investigate moral claims. On the other hand there are secular intellectuals, the majority of whom accept David Hume's articulation of the is/ought problem and who therefore also reject the notion that any 'is'--any fact or set of facts--can be prescriptive with regard to human duties or values. Both groups would object to the notion that, as the subtitle of this book claims, 'science can deterimine human values'. But that is what Harris intends to demonstrate--or at least assert.

Harris' argument ends up largely being that once human values are known or given, science can then reveal better and worse ways to go about achieving those ends. Notice that this argument is markedly different from the claim of the subtitle of the book. Using sleight of hand Harris attempts to pass off science's ability to evaluate a given value for its ability to determine a value.

Harris effectively presupposes that human (or creaturely) well-being is the pinnacle of conscious experience and that misery and suffering are the valleys. He acknowledges that these values can't be arrived at empirically or by means of brute reason, and therefore he essentially admits that the subtitle of his book is false.

While the subtitle of the book was particularly irksome to me for this reason, once you get past that issue the book really wasn't too objectionable for me as a Christian reader. I imagine that Harris thinks many of the things he's saying are anathema to religious persons, but most of what he says either accords with orthodox Christian theology just fine, or at least isn't opposed by it. Harris wants to affirm the existence of 'objective' moral values and so do Christians; we just don't believe such a thing could exist if atheism were true.

In his work as a neuroscientist Harris makes what were, for him, some surprising discoveries, but which wouldn't surprise a Christian. For example, he did an experiment where he neuroimaged the human mind while it was shown statements of widely varying content and characteristics. To his surprise the statements "2+4+8=14" and "It is good to treat your children with love" registered as the most similar in the human mind, despite seeming to be the most different in nature. Again, to the Christian who believes that the human mind is a divine product, and that morality is as much a matter of fact as math, this is exactly what we would expect to find. To Harris this signified that the fact/value gap might not exist at the level of the human mind, contrary to what most secularists maintain. Just so.

Harris' argument that science--the study of God's material creation--can reveal moral truths is hardly surprising for the Christian as Christian doctrine has long affirmed just that. The point that religious people and secular philosophers alike often make is that without some transcendent source a fact can't determine a value. Harris is assuming a priori that there is not a transcendent source, observing in his research a mingling of facts and values, and then when confronted with this intractable logical problem he simply brushes it aside. This has the curious effect of rendering Harris' worldview more in sync with reality as it is--with how God made it--but incompatible with atheism; while his nihilistic, atheist philosopher opponents are more logically consistent given atheism as a presupposition, but their worldview doesn't accord as well with the empirical findings of neurobiology. You can have consistent, nihilistic atheism; you can have consistent, moral theism; you can not have consistent moral atheism, and nothing about Harris' project confronts this unavoidable reality.

Which is not to say that he is unaware of the objections, he just finds them trivial and dismisses them, when in reality they are fundamentally problematic for his entire enterprise. The problem is not his claim that science can evaluate or even determine human values, but that it can do so and atheism can be true. Both his religious and secular critics have it right, and the long held philosophical basis for this conclusion is sound and Harris offers no counter to it.

Christians can happily affirm that science reveals some basic moral truths, with the caveat that the Bible reveals the same truths with greater accuracy and precision. The latter is what Harris would object to, I assume, but he offers no argument that Christian morality necessarily contradicts the moral truths that a scientific study of nature reveals. And since he spends so little time attempting to show that this is the case, a Christian should have very little fundamental reason to object to the content of the book--although one can point out that the content is incoherent coming from an atheist.

When he does talk about 'religion', and how it is in moral opposition to science, he talks about it in general and abstract terms rendering his observations either vacuously true, or often simply false. For example:

Because most religions conceive of morality of being obedient to the word of God (generally for the sake of receiving a supernatural reward) their precepts often have nothing to do with the world.

Even if this were true of religion in general (which I don't even believe that it is), it is certainly false with regard to orthodox Christianity specifically. Christian moral law is not arbitrary, but revealed to humanity for human's own sake, and primarily for their own sake in the material, created realm. This renewal and salvation of this material world, of the flesh of the sinner, is what the Gospel is ultimately about. The Gospel of Christ is certainly not about following moral law to earn supernatural rewards, that is merely a simplistic caricature of faith that exists in Harris' mind (and unfortunately in the mind of some fundamentalists as well).

Further he affirms that it is morally encumbent upon humans to avoid certain 'natural' tendencies. Again, this does not make much sense given his presuppositions, but it is entirely consistent with the Christian conception of morality.

Evolution may have selected for territorial violence, rape and other patently unethical behaviors as strategies to propagate one's genes--but our collective well-being clearly depends on our opposing such natural tendencies.


The book goes on to expend much of its energy toward fighting against moral relativism and, again, should be applauded for doing so. Harris aptly points out that moral relativism is a self-contradictory position. He also makes a sound case against the pervasive cultural relativism that says that since morality differs from culture to culture, one culture has no right to denounce another's moral code as inferior. Harris rightly argues that this isn't the case and that since we can identify cultures that are more adept at creating conditions conducive to human flourishing, as well as those with values that are remarkably efficient at ensuring high degrees of misery, we can make objective judgments about the values and practices of various cultures with respect to the goal of maximizing human well-being. I would mostly heartily agree with this. Although I would also point out that merely reading the Bible is a shortcut to arriving at the same conclusions of a 'science of human well-being'.

A very curious feature of the book is the chapter on free will in which Harris asserts a deterministic worldview, which he claims science confirms almost necessarily, in which free will can't exist. His argument is, as should be expected, highly inadequate and unconvincing. And this, I should remind you, comes directly after he has already affirmed the existence of a kind of objective morality. He again admits that this presents a bit of problem for moral accountability, but he doesn't seem to grasp just how enormous the problem. After all, what sense does it make to declare the virtue of a particular science-based morality only to cut your own feet out from under you? If free will does not exist then morality is an illusion.

In this section he asserts that neuroscience leaves little room for a soul in the sense of a 'ghost in the machine'; an immaterial causal 'substance'. Again, apparently oblivious to the fact that very large portions of Christianity reject a 'hard' dualism of this sort, and instead affirm that the soul is not in any real sense 'separate' from the body or mind. As is typical for writers in this genre, he constructs arguments that might be problematic for particular brands of religious fundamentalism, but not for religion in general and certainly not for orthodox Christianity.

It seems to me that few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems.

If we grant this somewhat dubious observation to be true--which we aren't obligated to do--it has little relevance to the Christian faith which holds that the soul does not stand independent of all material influences, but instead that the actions we take in this world affects the soul, and the soul in turn has the ability to affect the world. The Straw Man cometh.

While Harris lodges some legitimate arguments against a hard mind-soul, or body-soul dualism, he imagines that he is striking blows at the heart of religion or Christianity themselves, when he is doing no such thing.

As a screed against the pervasive moral relativism or nihilism that exists in academia The Moral Landscape is a compelling book that makes a strong argument. As a screed against religion or orthodox Christianity it's comically irrelevant and inept. As a coherent moral philosophy, consistent with the author's atheism, it fails rather spectacularly.