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Pascal on other-wordly longing

A beautiful though long reading from one of my classes today.
From Blaise Pascal, Pensées.

246 [536-434]

The chief arguments of the sceptics- I pass over the lesser ones- are that we have no certainty of the truth of these principles apart from faith and revelation, except in so far as we naturally perceive them in ourselves. Now this natural intuition is not a convincing proof of their truth; since, having no certainty, apart from faith, whether man was created by a good God, or by a wicked demon, or by chance, it is doubtful whether these principles given to us are true, or false, or uncertain, according to our origin. Again, no person is certain, apart from faith, whether he is awake or sleeps, seeing that during sleep we believe that we are awake as firmly as we do when we are awake; we believe that we see space, figure, and motion; we are aware of the passage of time, we measure it; and in fact we act as if we were awake. So that half of our life being passed in sleep, we have on our own admission no idea of truth, whatever we may imagine. As all our intuitions are, then, illusions, who knows whether the other half of our life, in which we think we are awake, is not another sleep a little different from the former, from which we awake when we suppose ourselves asleep?

And who doubts that, if we dreamt in company, and the dreams chanced to agree, which is common enough, and if we were always alone when awake, we should believe that matters were reversed? In short, as we often dream that we dream, heaping dream upon dream, may it not be that this half of our life, wherein we think ourselves awake, is itself only a dream on which the others are grafted, from which we wake at death, during which we have as few principles of truth and good as during natural sleep, these different thoughts which disturb us being perhaps only illusions like the flight of time and the vain fancies of our dreams? These are the chief arguments on one side and the other.

I omit minor ones, such as the sceptical talk against the impressions of custom, education, manners, country and the like. Though these influence the majority of common folk, who dogmatise only on shallow foundations, they are upset by the least breath of the sceptics. We have only to see their books if we are not sufficiently convinced of this, and we shall very quickly become so, perhaps too much.

I notice the only strong point of the dogmatists, namely, that, speaking in good faith and sincerely, we cannot doubt natural principles. Against this the sceptics set up in one word the uncertainty of our origin, which includes that of our nature. The dogmatists have been trying to answer this objection ever since the world began.

So there is open war among men, in which each must take a part and side either with dogmatism or scepticism. For he who thinks to remain neutral is above all a sceptic. This neutrality is the essence of the sect; he who is not against them is essentially for them. In this appears their advantage. They are not for themselves; they are neutral, indifferent, in suspense as to all things, even themselves being no exception.

What, then, shall man do in this state? Shall he doubt everything? Shall he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Shall he doubt whether he doubts? Shall he doubt whether he exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete sceptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason and prevents it raving to this extent. Shall he, then, say, on the contrary, that he certainly possesses truth- he who, when pressed ever so little, can show no title to it and is forced to let go his hold?

What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!

Who will unravel this tangle? Nature confutes the sceptics, and reason confutes the dogmatists. What, then, will you become, O men! who try to find out by your natural reason what is your true condition? You cannot avoid one of these sects, nor adhere to one of them. Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God. For in fact, if man had never been corrupt, he would enjoy in his innocence both truth and happiness with assurance; and if man had always been corrupt, he would have no idea of truth or bliss. But, wretched as we are, and more so than if there were no greatness in our condition, we have an idea of happiness and can not reach it. We perceive an image of truth and possess only a lie. Incapable of absolute ignorance and of certain knowledge, we have thus been manifestly in a degree of perfection from which we have unhappily fallen.

It is, however, an astonishing thing that the mystery furthest removed from our knowledge, namely, that of the transmission of sin, should be a fact without which we can have no knowledge of ourselves. For it is beyond doubt that there is nothing which more shocks our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered guilty those who, being so removed from this source, seem incapable of participation in it. This transmission does not only seem to us impossible, it seems also very unjust. For what is more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than to damn eternally an infant incapable of will, for a sin wherein he seems to have so little a share that it was committed six thousand years before he was in existence? Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves.

The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man. Whence it seems that God, willing to render the difficulty of our existence unintelligible to ourselves, has concealed the knot so high, or, better speaking, so low, that we are quite incapable of reaching it; so that it is not by the proud exertions of our reason, but by the simple submissions of reason, that we can truly know ourselves.

These foundations, solidly established on the inviolable authority of religion, make us know that there are two truths of faith equally certain: the one, that man, in the state of creation, or in that of grace, is raised above all nature, made like unto God and sharing in His divinity; the other, that in the state of corruption and sin, he is fallen from this state and made like unto the beasts. These two propositions are equally sound and certain.

Scripture manifestly declares this to us, when it says in some places: Deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominum [ Prov. 8. 31. “And my delights were with the sons of men.”]. Effundam spiritum meum super omnem carnem [Joel 2. 28. “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.”]. Dii estis [ Ps. 82 .6. “Ye are gods.”], etc.; and in other places, Omnis caro faenum [Is. 40. 6. “All flesh is grass.”]. Homo assimilatus est jumentis insipientibus, et similis factus est illis [ Ps. 49. 12,13. “He is like the beasts that perish; this their way is their folly.]. Dixi in corde meo de filiis hominum [ Eccles. 3. 18. “I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men.”].

Whence it clearly seems that man by grace is made like unto God, and a partaker in His divinity, and that without grace he is like unto the brute beasts.

247 [853-438]

If man is not made for God, why is he happy only in God? If man is made for God, why is he so opposed to God?

Christ, the τέλος of the Law

Paul writes that Christ is the “end of the law” (NASB) [“τέλος γὰρ νόμου Χριστὸς” (GNT)] (Romans 10:4). This is not a very straightforward phrase, because “τέλος” could mean several different things.

Is Christ the end of the law, as in, the goal of the law? A similar usage to the Westminster confession’s first statement “the chief end of man” meaning the very purpose and direction in which something is supposed to act. In this interpretation the law convicts men of their sin, without providing the solution, because Christ is that solution.

Is Christ the end of the law, as in, the illustrative or thematic culmination of the law? This would be a covenantal, Biblical theology type answer where the various parts of the OT law were retrospectively indicative of various parts of Christ’s atonement. For example the “end” of the priestly class is Christ, the “end” of the ritual sacrifices is Christ, the “end” of ceremonial uncleanliness is Christ, etc.

Is Christ the end of the law, as in, he terminates the law? S Lewis Johnson interprets this to mean that “the old order, the legal age, is done away in Christ, even as a hypothetical means of salvation (no one could be saved by the Law, for all men are sinners, Christ excluded; cf. Gal. 3:10, 11, 12),” and claims that this is likely the force of the text.

If the third interpretation is correct (which it seems to me for those reasons and also from the context of verses 1-4), then doesn’t that directly contradict the other NT statements that the Law will never pass away, that Christ came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and so on? I am thinking in particular of Matthew 5:17-20. Does Paul’s statement on the Law not oppose Christ’s, and if not, how do I understand both of them?

 

From study notes by S Lewis Johnson.

Faith Unconfined by Time or Place

From a book I’ve been reading this week, remarking on John 4:

“The woman asked our Lord whether Samaria or Jerusalem was the true place of worship. He answers that henceforth worship is no longer to be limited to a certain place: ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour cometh, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem shall ye worship the Father.’ As God is Spirit, not bound by space or time but in His infinite perfection always and everywhere the same, so His worship would henceforth no longer be confined by place or form, but importance.

How much our Christianity suffers from this, that it is confined to certain times and places. A man, who seeks to pray earnestly in the church or in the closet, spends the greater part of the week or the day in a spirit entirely at variance with that in which he prayed. His worship was the work of a fixed place or hour, not of his whole being. God is a Spirit: He is the Everlasting and Unchangeable One; what He is, He is always and in truth. Our worship must even so be in spirit and truth: His worship must be the spirit of our life; our life must be worship in spirit as God is Spirit.”

Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, 7.

As I shared this paragraph with my group of high school campers yesterday, they (and I) were struck by the concept of a faith unconfined by time or place. What does it mean to be a Christian person who does things, rather than merely a person who does Christian things? How do these students fully integrate their faith into their mindset so that nothing escapes the Christ filter: that we see all things through the lens with which Jesus saw them?

I remember the fall semester of my Sophomore year in high school… coming up on four years ago… when this change happened in me. Oswald Chambers had written about exactly this concept in MUFHH one day. I distinctly remember ignoring my math teacher to read instead. It took a real work of the Spirit to affect this change in me, especially at that time in my life, but the perspective shift was clear and long lasting. It still lasts today; it is how I see the world.

The eternality and omnipresence of God are considered two of his incommunicable attributes; ‘incommunicable,’ meaning, we cannot experience them in the same way he does. We also cannot really be faulted for failing to be eternal or to be everywhere at once. Is anyone going to blame you for those ‘failures’? No reasonable person would, because they are not possible. But like all the incommunicable attributes of God, they are only relatively incommunicable, because we can experience something like them.

This is what Murray means when he says “As God is Spirit… so his worship would henceforth no longer be confined.” Another way to put this statement is to generalize it as “As God is a certain way… so our worship should be too.” Our consistency as people and our ‘lifestyle’ of worship are not done just because they are considered good things, or their alternatives are worse, or they look good to non believers, or even because they are commanded. Rather, we are emulating the very Being of God himself in the best way we humans can.

ἀγαλλιάω (Agalliao)

A quick word study on ἀγαλλιάω (Agalliao; Strong #21) in the New Testament.

Definition

Thayer: to exult, rejoice exceedingly, be exceeding glad

Strong: From ἄγαν agan (much) and G242 [leap; spring up]; properly to jump for joy, that is, exult: – be (exceeding) glad, with exceeding joy, rejoice (greatly).

Mounce: to be filled with delight, with great joy

Usage

It appears that there are 11 New Testament uses:

Matthew 5:12 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad [agalliao], because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Context — immediately after the Beatitudes (or the final statement of them?) in addition to the other “Blessed are…” statements.

Luke 1:47 And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord / and my spirit rejoices [agalliao] in God my Savior, / for he has been mindful / of the humble state of his servant.’

Context — in the Magnificat, the song sung by Mary after she meets with Elizabeth. (Interesting, John the Baptist is described in the verses before as “the baby in my womb leaped for joy” which sounds suspiciously like the word agalliao, but is instead each word used individually (eskirtēsen en agalliasei (noun), leaped in exultation) rather than this portmanteau.

Luke 10:21 At that time Jesus, full of joy [agalliao] through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

Context — Jesus has just received back the 72 whom he had earlier sent out as missionaries. The antecedent to “these things” appears to be specifically the power of God to overcome the enemy (and snakes), but more general the “all things” later in verse 26.

John 5:35 You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy [agalliao] his light.

Context — After a section on the authority given by the Father to the Son, Jesus makes this statement in reference to John the Baptist, and then says that the person testifying that Jesus’s words are true is the Father, because the Father validates Jesus’s ministry through the miracles (“works”?) that he does.

John 8:56 Your father Abraham rejoiced [agalliao] at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

Context — Right after Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being the children of Satan. They naturally object, saying that they are the children of Abraham. Here Jesus makes the claim that he existed before Abraham and then uses the title “I am” which almost certainly refers to the burning bush in Exodus 3. The author of Hebrew also has something to say about Old Testament figures looking forward to or rejoicing over seeing Jesus’s day.

Acts 2:26 [quoting Psalm 16] David said about him: “‘I saw the Lord always before me. / Because he is at my right hand, / I will not be shaken. / Therefore my heart is glad [agalliao] and my tongue rejoices; / my body also will rest in hope, / because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, / you will not let your holy one see decay. / You have made known to me the paths of life; / you will fill me with joy in your presence.

Context — At Pentecost, Peter is quoting Psalm 16 (from the LXX) and saying that David prophetically hinted at the eternal life of one of his descendants.

Acts 16:34 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy [agalliao] because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

Context — The Philippian Jailer who turned to Christ after an earthquake and hearing the testimony of Paul and Silas.

1 Peter 1:6, 8 In all this you greatly rejoice [agalliao], though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy [agalliao], for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Context — the beginning of Peter’s epistle (or perhaps encyclical) to the various exiles in Turkey. Peter is saying that believers are filled with joy (“inexpressible and glorious joy”) in both happy times and in the midst of suffering.

1 Peter 4:13 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed [agalliao] when his glory is revealed.

Context — roughly the same as before; later in the letter.

Revelation 19:7 Let us rejoice [agalliao] and be glad / and give him glory! / For the wedding of the Lamb has come, / and his bride has made herself ready.

Context– Babylon falls, which is probably symbolic of all of Sin itself being destroyed, near the end of Revelation. Then, several praise choruses break out in Heaven, including this one. We are to rejoice because the consummation of all things (wedding feast and bride imagery being relevant for this reason) is then about to happen soon.

The best rendering of this word in the NIV is either the above use of “overjoyed” in 1 Peter 4:13, or Jesus being “full of joy” in Luke 10:21.

Here are the non-apocryphal Septuagint (LXX) uses: 66 verses with 50 uses in the Psalms and 10 in Isaiah. (2 Sam. 1:20; 1 Chr. 16:31; Ps. 2:11; 5:11; 9:2, 14; 13:4f; 14:7; 16:9; 19:5; 20:5; 21:1; 31:7; 32:11; 33:1; 35:9, 27; 40:16; 48:11; 51:8, 14; 53:6; 59:16; 60:6; 63:7; 67:4; 68:3f; 70:4; 71:23; 75:9; 81:1; 84:2; 89:12, 16; 90:14; 92:4; 95:1; 96:11f; 97:1, 8; 98:4, 8; 118:24; 119:162; 132:9, 16; 145:7; 149:2, 5; Song 1:4; Isa. 12:6; 25:9; 29:19; 35:1f; 41:16; 49:13; 61:10; 65:14, 19; Jer. 49:4; Lam. 2:19; Hab. 3:18) (source)

The Precept Austin source (immediately above) also notes that “Agalliao is not used by secular Greek writers” and comments that this is likely because they did not have things to be so joyed about to need this strong of a word. Rienecker adds that agalliao “appears to be used always with the connotation of a religious joy, a joy that springs from the contemplation of God or God’s salvation.

Potential for Application

We cannot draw many applications just from an analysis of a word itself. This term and its positive usage in the New Testament do seem to indicate, at least, that our threshold for joy should be high. It is possible to reach this high threshold for joy. I would even make the stronger claim that we can understand joy this powerful through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, like in the Luke 10:21 section.

That this term does not appear in secular Greek texts (if true) implies either that it was an idiosyncratic term used only by people who had contact with the first person to coin the word, or that there was truly no “jumping for joy” absent of the power of God. I am not sure which is more reasonable. Peter advised Mark in writing his Gospel, yet both Matthew and Luke include variations on the Beatitudes while Mark does not; this eliminates the main potential source of downstream influence for use of this term, but even still, it could have just generally been in use during the first century in the region.

Three of these passages (Matthew and both the 1 Peter passages) describe joy in the midst of suffering. This joy is not just the usual word for joy (χαρά, chara), but instead the colorful word picture of “jumping for joy,” which goes further. In our times of sorrow, we want to do much less than be joyful, but Jesus and Peter both imply here that our joy should be further increased than normal.

Answering Objections 3: Faith is Unbelievable

Objector:

And for faith.. Can’t you believe in anything using faith?

Response:

Faith, Belief, Knowledge, having a Hunch, and Speculation are not distinct concepts, but rather, differing degrees of the same concept. We accept a thing as truth — call it X — on the basis of some other thing — call it Y — also being true and being at least somewhat indicative of X. How indicative does Y have to be on X? Well, that depends. If you are shooting for a Speculation, then not really very indicative at all; if a Hunch, then slightly indicative; if Faith, moderately indicative; if Belief, very indicative; if Knowledge, completely indicative. Think of these terms according to a sliding scale, not as distinct processes.

So then, we use “faith” in one of these ways every day. The classic though flawed example is that we daily sit in chairs even though — technically… — we have little reason to believe that that specific chair will hold us up this particular time.

Scientists, then, use faith all the time. Not in their science itself, as such; but nonetheless that all scientists depend upon a set of unfalsifiable beliefs. These beliefs are equally as questionable as the theist’s beliefs. Philosophers tend to call these “metaphysics” as a catch-all term, but others have come up with more clever terms like “worldview” or the “spectacles” through which one views the world. A person’s basic core beliefs in metaphysics cannot be disproved using the scientific method, which according to nearly all atheists is the way to prove everything. This sounds familiar… oh yeah.

So, the question is not “should we use faith to believe X,” but instead, “do we have a strong enough Y to not be exercising BLIND faith in X.” The answer to that question for Christianity, I am convinced, is yes. We may never fully establish the claims of Christianity beyond the faith level — as in, the arguments for Christianity may never become deductive, they may always retain some amount of slippery inductive flexibility. But even still, this retains the ability to reasonably believe without mere speculation or hunch holding.

Answering Objections 2: the Bible Supports Slavery

Objector:

the bible supports slavery

and later on in the debate:

It also says that you may beat your slave as long ad they don’t die.

further down:

It says that you can beat your slave.. That’s what it says.

 

Response:

  1. The objector, probably unintentionally, equivocates the term slavery across two different historical contexts. Slavery in the ancient world is not equal to slavery in the nineteenth century. This mistake is understandable, considering that in school we exclusively learned about slavery in US History. The differences are numerous, but to keep it simple, a helpful comparison is to indentured servants. These were people who sold their labor for 7 year blocks of time, became “slaves”, and were released again at the end of their due time. Here are some additional ways: slavery in the ancient world was unrelated to race, whereas in the US is was almost immediately about race; a slave in the ancient world could have any job, like being a poet, a farmer, a guard, a tutor, and so on, whereas in the US slavery was restricted to manual labor. (Granted, most jobs at the time were agricultural anyways, so this is only marginally true). There are more differences than these.
  2. Does the Bible “support slavery”? For the Bible to support something, it would be necessary to find a commandment that states “You can have slaves.” Now, such a commandment is nowhere to be found.
  3. Of course, the Bible still talks about slavery without outright endorsing it. Could the Bible implicitly nod to slavery, giving sanction to the practice without making the statement “You can have slaves”? Of course it could. But these are murky waters, for now we have to intuit the intention behind every reference to slavery — even when the text itself is silent. In these cases either scenario tends to be a valid interpretation. For example, moral codes like “An eye for an eye” can be seen as giving people the right to seek vigilante retribution against their enemy, and endorsing violence as the best way to deal with violence. OR, those same moral codes can be seen as a limit that bars the offended from extracting disproportionate punishment from the offender; the code could equally be read as “AT MOST an eye, for an eye” which is an equally valid reading.
  4. More complexity comes about when we distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive discussion in the text. Do we really think that, because the Bible so much as mentions a topic, it endorses that topic? Clearly not. For example, the Bible records various people engaging in polygamy throughout the Old Testament… but does that give license to polygamy? No, because we can see the consequences of those actions (which are numerous for Solomon) and use other Biblical principles to come to a more full understanding of the general topic (like that monogamy is represented in the beginning, and in parallel at the Wedding Feast in Revelation, etc.) which have importance for how we understand that general topic.
  5. My friend Kristina Olsen points this out: “the same passage that you mentioned about the slave beatings (Exodus 21) also mentions that if a master knocks his slave’s tooth out or destroys his slave’s eye, the slave must go free. Clearly, there are strict boundaries for harm. And that passage also says the slave shall be avenged if he dies by his master’s hand (vs. 20).” So, while the Bible does not, in this particular case, denounce slavery, it does place limits on the practice that likely exceeded the limits already in place.
  6. The Bible does depict slavery in a negative light at various points. The Israelites are slaves set free from Egypt (which later becomes a rallying point during the abolition movement). Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers (which is called “evil” in the text itself). The Israelites again become slaves during the Exile to Babylon, which is presented as being roughly the worst thing ever.
  7. An important place to look things in the Bible is also the New Testament. Most obviously we have Philemon, in which Paul requests that Philemon accept his former (runaway) slave Onesimus back into his household, not as a slave but as a freeman. This letter does not support or denounce slavery, though it was used heavily by both sides of the abolition debate in the US.
  8. If the Bible does not support or denounce slavery, then we could possibly look to history to see how Christians have used the Bible to support or denounce slavery. Now, this has exited the original discussion about the content of the Bible, but it could be helpful to examine anyway. This, too, is a jumbled mess. But I can at least point out that William Wilberforce in the UK along with almost all of the abolitionists in the US (Garrison, Douglass, Tappen, etc.) were both devout Christians and held their abolitionist perspective from a specifically Christian foundation. Consider also that abolitionism was first popularized (or, made more popular, since it was not actually “popular” until after it happened) during the Second Great Awakening and was mostly born (in the US) during the First Great Awakening. This is not a comprehensive case, but these are still good counterpoints to the claim that the Bible was always used to support slavery. See the book “America’s God” by Mark Noll for more on this.

The Bible does not “support” the nineteenth century institution of slavery with which we are all familiar. It does remain, on balance, mute regarding the legitimacy of economic bond-servitude as done in the ancient world. Particular rules are given to prevent the mistreatment of the slaves that are owned, which may or may not permit slavery, but certainly place a cap on its practice.

Answering Objections 1: Monotheism is almost Atheism

Yesterday during facebook argument #25014968076 of my life, some friends and I argued about atheism, faith, meta-ethical theory, scriptural inerrancy, and so on.

I feel a profound déjà vu every time these topics come up. Have they really been exhausted, or does everyone just learn 3/5 of the arguments and then point out the 2/5 hole in their opponent’s claims? We aren’t that comprehensive anyways; it all feels too familiar.

Oh well. Defending the faith is a long-time favorite topic of mine. (It is, roughly speaking, one of my college majors). So this debate makes a good springboard into writing about that for a while. This will be the first post of many, so click the apologetics tag at the bottom to see them all.

 


 

Objector:

There are about 100,000 gods..( actually more) atheist believe none exist.. You believe 999,000 don’t exist.. So you’re nearly as atheistic as i am..

Response:

I will call this argument the “Monotheism is almost Atheism” argument, and I think I remember Christopher Hitchens first saying it.

The numbers in the above statement are woefully incoherent unless you change the second number to be 99,999, after which it makes sense. The claim is that there are zillions of proposed gods throughout human history, and Christians reject nearly all of them on the grounds that there is no evidence, there were merely folklore, they served as a usual coping mechanism for the death of relatives in that society, etc.

Yet, says the objector, those are exactly the criticisms lobbed against the Christian God all the time. So, on what grounds does the Christian reject other gods without rejecting their own? This also bends the perspective, so that instead of saying “Christians believe in one more god than atheists” we are left with “atheists believe in one fewer god than Christians.”

The rephrasing has rhetorical power because it puts Christians into the middle position and simultaneously implies that no middle positions in this scenario are rational. But is that claim true? I have three replies:

  1. There is a lurking false dichotomy here: either believe in no gods and be an atheist, OR, believe in every god that humans have ever believed in. It is feasible that 20,000 gods could exist and yet humans have made up another million. It is feasible that every god proposed does actually exist and humans have never made another up. It is possible that 1 god exists and humans just have varied ways of articulating their experiences with it. All of these positions are feasible and distinct.
  2. Remember that God, in Christianity, is the only being in the category called “things that are divine.” The entire debate over theism is whether that is a legitimate category or not — not, as this objection implies, how we fill that category. Here is another way to say it: the debate is between Naturalism on the one hand, and Naturalism Plus on the other hand. Do things outside the physical observable world exist? By understanding the debate in this way, we see that the real gulf is between atheism and theism, not between monotheism and polytheism. The defeat of atheism (and thus all atheists believing in one more god) would be far more significant than all monotheists becoming bi-theists (and thus believing in one more god) because the real categorical hurdle is between (a)theism.
  3. Consider the way that Anselm and Aristotle conceived of God: he is that than which nothing greater can be conceived; he is the unmoved-first-mover. When we define God as equal to something which is logically necessary, rather than just a humanoid floating around somewhere, it becomes easier to see that the Christian God is more like All The Gods At Once of the other polytheistic religious, a sort of Divinity Itself. This is what makes monotheism distinct from polytheism: not just that they believe in less gods, but that the one god remaining is given Infinity for all his characteristics. Atheism is therefore does not just lose the last divine humanoid being, but loses Divinity itself and becomes naturalism.

So then, this objection’s rhetorical punch masks a deeper misunderstanding about the Christian idea of God’s being. Fix that mistake and the objection loses both its shock effect and its validity.

“The Current Crisis” in theoretical physics

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“Like spouses,” Mitch Stokes writes concerning quantum physics and general relativity, “each completes the other.” His new book How to be an Atheist explores the relationship between atheism and skepticism generally — arguing that atheists, though broadly skeptical, fail to employ their skepticism across the board into epistemology and ethics. If they did this, the atheist must reduce these fields to reject most of what atheistic leaders propose — namely, evolution by natural selection, M-theory, and moral values that do not originate from atheism, like equality, or justice.

One chapter stands out in particular. Can we use the scientific method to find out the fundamental nature of reality? No, Stokes argues, for various reasons over a few chapters. Moreover, in the outstanding chapter, he presents the case that even if science could answer these questions, we know anyway that “according to science itself, important aspects of our current physical theories are incorrect” (119).

Stokes writes,

General relativity and quantum mechanics shocked the world with their appearance in the first three decades of the 1900s, and together they account for the entire universe, including nature’s four fundamental forces and all the elementary particles out of which the universe is made — whether these particles are entirely at rest or approaching the speed of light. Although Newtonian mechanics is an excellent approximation for medium-sized dry goods at velocities far below the speed of light, when we address the most fundamental aspects of physical reality — when the universe “red lines” — physics becomes an extreme sport and we need quantum mechanics and general relativity (120).

Yes. Newton’s laws of motion did explain much more than Aristotle’s theories of motion, but they didn’t tell the whole story. We cannot blame Newton, of course, because the extremes of outer space and inner atoms had not been discovered. So he explained everything that had been discovered at the time. When those extreme phenomena were discovered, a more comprehensive theory came along to describe space (general relativity) and subatomic particles (quantum theory). But notice, these are two theories, not just one.

They need one another. Neither of them can account for physical reality alone, and so there’s a division of labor between them. Quantum mechanics takes care of the subatomic world; general relativity handles everything else. General relativity also treats gravity, which doesn’t exist in the eyes of quantum theory. Like spouses, each completes the other.

But the marriage has been rocky from the start. In fact, it began with a shotgun wedding. The division of labor, despite its practical success, was forced upon physicists, really. Our two pillars of physics are logically incompatible with one another, and so at least one of them is wrong. They tell different stories about the observable world (120-121).

The reason why these theories can coexist so well despite their underlying inconsistency is that physicists do not need to use both. What physicist uses both sets of tools, and how at once?

Rather inconveniently, there are scenarios that require both quantum mechanics and general relativity.

There are physical situations where physicists would really like to use both theories simultaneously. These are, as Greene points out, “extreme physical situations that are both massive and tiny.” Two such extreme cases are, he says, “the center of a black hole, in which an entire star has been crushed by its own weight to a minuscule point, and the big band, in which the entire observable universe is imagined to have been compressed to a nugget far smaller than a single atom.” Normally, in the quantum realm, the force of gravity is negligible because it’s so weak, being vastly overpowered by the other three (e.g., even a small magnet can overcome the force of gravity when it lifts a paper clip off the desk). But when the mass of a star or universe is packed into a volume smaller than an atom, we have to take gravity into account along with quantum effects. In other words, we need a theory of quantum gravity (121-122).

Nice. The two most important and empirically verified fields of science are incompatible and require some larger theory, perhaps we could call it a theory of everything?, that conatins both and synthesizes all the data into one explanatory framework. Man, people should really get on that, I bet it would make for a good life quest and —

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Oh yeah, never mind. Someone’s already been on that for a while.

But Stokes remains unimpressed by Hawking’s solution. String theory in general does not seem to be falsifiable: the versions of string theory we can test have been disproved, and the ones we cannot test are so numerous (as many as 10^500) that no experiment or set of experiments can disprove them all save the true one. M-theory in particular seems to be one step forward and two steps back: it is

a network of theories in which each theory is good at describing phenomena within a certain range. Or course, this sounds very much like our current situation, where general relativity and quantum mechanics each adequately deals with its respective domains, yet in some ways worse. Instead of merely two patches in the theoretical quilt, we now have five (124).

But, curiously, the same atheists who propose radical skepticism on the existence of God claim M-theory as the multiverse framework for the creation of a universe without a creator. Does that not also require non-skepticism? Stokes uses this point to support his claim that atheists are just not skeptical enough — and on precisely the issues that matter.

Why believe what false theories (allegedly) imply about topics even further removed from the topics they get wrong? Good skeptics will be wary of both.

So why aren’t they? (129).

“Why ‘tock-tick’ does not sound right to your ears”

Here is an interesting article about another one of those unwritten rules of the English language:

tick tock

Two Definitions of Racism

racism

When liberals and conservatives use the word racism, they tend to mean different things.

A conservative using the term racism is probably meaning something along the lines of people making race-based comments, committing race-based crimes, hiring an employee because they are one race or another, or something like a person’s college admissions status (which usually has a racial component snuck in there somewhere). For them, racism is specific and active. Racism is specific because it happens to specific people; a person can have very racist attitudes but not actually be “a racist” if they never act upon them, because, in their mind, racism is a thing that happens in the particulars of life, like the examples above. It is active because it requires a person to intentionally want it to happen, and anyone who has agency (activity-ness) can do racist things. Racism isn’t something that “just happens,” because someone has to decide to do it.

A liberal tends to use the term racism, not to put too fine a point on it, in the complete opposite way. For a liberal, racism is general and passive. Racism can be general because a single person is no longer the regular focus, in this definition. Instead, entire groups are viewed in aggregates (on average) and work together. “Whites are _____” and “Blacks are _____” can be meaningful, reasonable statements under this definition (whereas before, it could not). Accordingly, racism can be passive because those groups do not have collective agency (cannot act all together). The general setup of society is the way that it is, for various historical reasons, of course, but it means that nobody alive today planned on racial difference being this way.

The difference in these definitions are profound, and understanding the two definitions will cut away most disagreements before they really get started. For example, if a liberal says “you can’t be racist against blacks”, they don’t mean that you cannot say a racist word to a black person. Of course you could do that, and of course it would be morally wrong, but in the liberal’s mind, that is not enough to count as racism. You see, the liberal scheme of racism is that Racism = Hate based on race + Power. But, and this is the inconvenient truth, the conservative scheme of racism is that Racism = Hate based on race. Conservatives either deny that such a power disparity exists, or, more often, they neither agree nor disagree with the idea, as they have not had it explained clearly to them.

In shorter words, the conservative is talking about bigoted racism, and the liberal is talking about systemic racism. The term “racism” has these two parts, and so it is usually irresponsible to argue that something “is racist” or “is not racist.” Instead, it would be much clearer or everyone if we said that certain things “are racially bigoted” or “are not racially bigoted,” and that they “are systemically racist,” or  “are not systemically racist”.

I believe in the value of precise language.

So the next time someone uses the term racism, ask, “well, possibly, but which kind of racism do you mean? Bigotry, or systemic?” and then most of the friction will go away. You are now left with a claim that can be proven right or wrong, given the relevant facts and data, rather than a debate over categories and definitions, which are the worst.