Monday, June 30, 2008


To commemorate an excellent Euro 2008: videos of ten excellent goals. It'll need to be updated to include Sneider's efforts.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Lego God

A comment I've left over on Stephen Law's site, which may be worth sharing here.

My kids like to play with lego (so do I). Imagine they are making an item - eg a spaceship - and there is a piece missing, and the ship doesn't function properly without it.

The 'god of the gaps' argument says that God is the missing piece. Which leads to all sorts of problems for theology when the missing piece is discovered down the back of the sofa.

I would argue that God is Lego as such. That is, all the pieces are part of God. God is not so much a missing piece so much as the precondition for being able to build things at all.

In other words, the individual lego pieces are different aspects of life that are meaningful.

God is not a pixel

An old post which I'm bringing up front in response to the request from James, and NMMNG's comment about cheap shots. Consider this a more expensive shot! Originally posted 22nd December 2005.

Some thoughts about intelligent design and evolution

Intelligent design has been in the news again – a sensible judge has ruled that it is not a scientific theory, and therefore it would be unconstitutional for it to be taught in public schools in the US. So far, so straightforward. What I am going to argue here is that ID is actually a mistake on theological grounds, and rests upon both a mistaken understanding of the worth of science, and, indeed, a mistaken understanding of the nature of God.

The argument between ID advocates and the establishment evolutionary theorists seems frequently to centre on ‘what cannot be explained’. For example Michael Behe argues that some systems are ‘irreducibly complex’ – in other words, they depend upon the prior existence of other complex elements before they become evolutionarily useful. In order to have element A which is a benefit, you also need elements B and C – but you can’t have B without A and C, and you can’t have C without A and B. Behe uses the example of a mousetrap – you need five parts to the mousetrap (base, spring, etc) for it to be a mousetrap at all. If any of the elements are missing, then there is no mousetrap, there is no evolutionary advantage – therefore there must be some conscious design which brings the different elements together.

Now Behe’s specific criticisms seem fairly weak (although the conceptual point is interesting) but his is just one example of various criticisms that can be made of established evolutionary theory. I have much sympathy with the general point that there are big holes in it – that, in the words of one review I read, ‘the big scientific story of the 21st century will be the overthrow of Darwinian evolution’ – and the grounds for that are, in essence, that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is built on Newtonian physics, and just as Newtonian physics has been put in its place, so too will the neo-Darwinian synthesis – but this overthrow will be accomplished by a genius biologist, working within established scientific arenas, not by a theologian. (Might be a MoQ inspired scientist though…)

For the issue of explanatory gaps and problems within evolutionary theory is a question of science – as the good judge has determined. It has absolutely nothing to say of theological interest. Worse, those who try to use these (wholly to be expected and normal) ‘gaps’ in the theory are actually engaged in very bad Christian thinking. For what we have is a form of ‘God of the gaps’ argument. Hey! Here is something that science can’t explain! Well THAT must be where God is! Phew! Thought we’d lost Him just then…

The ID advocates have already conceded far too much to science. They are arguing that because there are specific details which science cannot account for (eg evolution of the eye – tho’ they should read Dawkins on that one) therefore ‘God’ must be the explanation, and therefore this is a good argument for the existence of God. But the God that they are arguing for is a scientific artefact – an object – an idol. In the terms of the debate they have implicitly accepted that scientific standards of evaluation and judgement are the appropriate standards by which to judge the question of God’s existence – and this is idolatry. Those who argue that Intelligent Design is Christian do not know what they are talking about. Intelligent Design is a heresy, a blasphemy, a denial of the living God.

The issue at stake between the Christian and the atheist forms of evolutionary theory (eg Dawkins – not all those who work in the field of evolutionary theory are atheist) does not rest upon one particular instance or other. God cannot be ‘proven’ by the presence of a problem which science cannot give a full account of. On the contrary, the issue is one of how to interpret the whole. God is either fully present as Creator throughout all of the creation; or there is no God. To say that at the point where the scientific explanation comes up short – there is God – this is an abandonment of the faith, this is the Vichy regime of theologies.

The Christian insistence upon a creator is not the assertion of a scientifically established ‘fact’ – it is the assertion of the correct way to interpret all facts. It is about an attitude and orientation towards life – to receive all of life as a gift, and therefore to live in thanksgiving (eucharist) for that gift – and is therefore primarily about asserting that this world is a meaningful world. It is not the assertion of a fact ‘within the world’ – it is an assertion about the world as a whole.

So let me finish with an analogy, which may make my point clear. Consider a television screen (or a computer monitor). Go right up close, and all you can see are individual dots, picture elements, what we now call pixels. They are of myriad different colours; they change periodically. Science is about establishing the nature of the pixels – is this pixel green? Is this pixel blue? Intelligent Design is saying ‘No, this pixel isn’t blue, this pixel is God!’

God is not a pixel.

We step back from the screen – we put scientific endeavour into its proper context - and we see that there is the image of a man on the screen. It is an interpretation of the whole, it is not a question of detail.

Someone profoundly trained in science may still not be able to see the image. It is a Rorschach test, and this is the fundamental divide – is this pattern of dots meaningful or not? If it is - there is God. This is not a scientific question. This is not a question of intelligent design. This is a question of the language you use to describe the presence of meaning in the world.

'I should like to say that ... the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer... It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to say it. practice gives the words their sense'. (Wittgenstein)


“You speak of signs and wonders
But I need something other
I would believe if I was able
But I'm waiting on the crumbs from your table”


What we need today is a Death Metal Psalmist.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

How to argue

There's a lot I could say about this but for now I'm just going to sigh with relief.
(Stolen from OSO)


Charles Taylor on atheism (part 1 of 3):
"But then what we need to do, and this is something many religious people fail to do, is to consider why this phenomena of the new atheism is happening at this time. Atheists are reacting in the same way that religious fundamentalists reacted in the past. They are people who have been very comfortable with a sense that their particular position is what makes sense of everything and so on, and then when they are confronted by something else they just go bananas and throw up the most incredibly bad arguments in a tone of indignation and anger. And that’s the problem with that whole master narrative of secularization, what’s called the secularization thesis, that people got lulled into—you know, that religion is a thing of the past, that it’s disappearing, that it did all these terrible things but it’s going to go away and so on—because when it comes back people are just undone."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Happening

Solid, but unsubtle. Not as bad as people have been implying, but not as good as some of his other films either. Shyamalan is becoming very distinctive in his concerns, exploring them from different angles. They resonate with me but I can understand them being alien to others.

There were some bizarre things in this film though - eg the presence of a boom mike in one shot (deliberate?) - and there was one crucial scene about 2/3 of the way in, involving the lead couple, which seemed to 'clang' badly - but again, it may have been deliberate.

So: worth watching, but probably not worth watching at the cinema if you're not already a fan. 3.5/5


How to take a nap.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

An atheism meme

Via James Elliott and Chris Dillow. I thought I'd jump in and see what happens...

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

The denial of theism.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Church of England.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?


Q4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?

Lots. I'm particularly interested in neuro-psychology at the moment.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

Give them a better sense of intellectual history, especially Christian intellectual history.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

You can't do it unless you're called, and if you're called you can't do anything else.

Q7. What’s your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

I don't have any favourite theistic arguments.

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

er... bearing in mind where I'm coming at this from, probably that God=meaning.

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I've never read Harris so can't comment; Hitchens is a journalist with attitude but not much more; Dawkins is a gifted writer with a good understanding of biology but not much more; which leaves Dennett as the best of the bunch. He at least has some greater breadth.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Oo. Lots to choose from, but it'd be a toss up between Osama bin Laden and Peter Akinola.

Meaning, Suffering and Integrity

Returning to the discussion about suffering. This is long (c 3700 words).

We had an interesting reading from Romans in our last Sunday service:

"...but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." (Rom 5.3-5, NIV)


What does it mean to believe in God? Specifically, what does it mean for a Christian to believe in God? As I understand it, the essential element is about meaning or purpose - to believe in God is to believe that life is meaningful, is purposeful, and this meaning is by definition independent of personal choice or preference, it is something that stands outside of our desires and it is something to which we need to conform in order to flourish. The Christian claim is that this meaning became manifest in human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who taught, was crucified and rose again on the third day two thousand years ago. This is what is meant in the prologue to John's gospel: the Word became flesh. The logos (meaning, purpose) took human form, lived amongst us, full of grace and truth. Thus, there may be many ways of describing meaning in human life; the Christian claim is that this meaning is explicitly revealed in Jesus yet (if a Christian accepts that all things were made through Christ) we can expect to find meaning outside of the Christian tradition. No genuine human meaning is incompatible with Christianity.


Consider what happens at a church wedding, and specifically the contrast with a state service. At both of them legal vows will be exchanged, yet in the former the language and liturgy of God is foremost; in the latter all references to religion are forbidden. Specifically, in the vows spoken in a church service there is the phrase 'in the presence of God I make this vow'.

What is being referred to with this language of God is precisely the larger purpose, the larger framework of meaning, within which the vows have their place. There is an acknowledgment of several things: that the desires of the couple are not sovereign; that they are dependent upon God's grace for the health of their relationship; that the commitment is sacred involving the most profound elements of the personality; that the process is open-ended, may involve drastic change to one or both parties, but that the covenant being made in the sight of God is being set up above whatever individual choices and preferences the parties bring to the agreement.

In other words, a marriage is not just a contract. To say that the marriage is being made 'in the presence of God' is to place the relationship in that larger framework of meaning and purpose from which all other meanings and purposes (in a Christian culture) derive their sense. It is about rooting the relationship in a much longer and deeper pattern of life than personal choice and desire.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to have a non-Christian wedding service that partakes of this same character, eg Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist wedding services. What I do not perceive to be possible is to have an explicitly atheist wedding service which partakes of the same sharing in a wider purpose, independent of human choices. The difference I perceive between humourless and sophisticated atheism is that the former doesn't recognise there to be any problem here; the latter does, and offers alternatives. It is not so much the word 'God' itself that matters, it is the acknowledgment of something higher.


How does human suffering fit in with this context of meaning? How does this understanding of the word 'God' fit in with "the problem of suffering"? There seem two ways to address this issue, one academic, one more personal.

The academic issue is to point out inconsistencies between supposed attributes of God and the presence of suffering, either as a logical problem (see here) or as an 'evidentiary' problem (see here). The greatest problem of these academic approaches is that they mistake the nature of (in particular) Christian faith in God. There are three inter-linked problems:

i) it is a central claim of the tradition that God is ultimately mysterious and not finally knowable. We cannot attain to a position of oversight with respect to God, we are always in an inferior position - that's part of what the word 'God' means - something which is above and beyond our comprehension. Any analysis which seeks to render God's attributes definable is not engaging with a Christian analysis;

ii) related to this is the axiom that I have mentioned several times before about idolatry. This can be defined in several ways, one of the simplest being 'God is not a member of a set' (including the set of things which are not members of a set!). This is a rule of thumb - a grammatical rule - determining how the word God can be used. What it means is that nothing definable in the human realm can be given an absolute meaning. All things are subject to change;

iii) a third implication is that it is blasphemous to try and justify God to humanity - what is technically called theodicy - because the attempt necessarily violates points i) and ii) above, and therefore runs counter to the meaning and purpose that the word God refers to. This doesn't mean that the problem can't be considered and clarified further through discussion - it does mean (and this is something that is slowly dawning on me personally) that the faithful not only cannot provide an intellectually satisfactory answer, but that they mustn't. This is one of the points I take from the Hart article.


One of the problems that I have experienced in discussing this issue is that many theologians explicitly pursue theodicies. The implication of my argument above is that they are faithless. I do not believe it to be an accident that Modern Protestants are over-represented amongst such thinkers.

A Modern Protestant might agree that 'There is an x such that x is God'. More traditional Christians cry out with Augustine 'our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee'.


You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

(Leonard Cohen, Anthem)


The more personal problem of suffering relates to what people actually do when they are faced with suffering. When a person's world crumbles around them because of a particular turn of events is it still possible to claim that life is still meaningful? Does the language about the world having meaning and purpose, apart from our own choices, still make any sort of sense when confronted with life-shattering circumstances? The question could be: when we are in the pit of despair, is there a ladder that can be used to climb up out?

There are at least three options:

i) a nihilist answer: there is no ladder. Life is bleak and meaningless. There is no higher purpose. Get used to it! Stop indulging in lily-livered sentimentalism and self-deceit. The trouble I see with this sort of answer is that it destroys everything that makes humanity distinctively human - there is no longer any human Quality available. There is nothing to build a life around.

ii) an enlightened existentialist answer: make the ladder yourself, out of your own resources. Where I think this line of thought breaks down in this context (it breaks down elsewhere too) is that it is appealing to resources of character and moral strength that may be precisely what have been exhausted by the suffering.

iii) a Christian (or other religious response) which, ultimately, ends up talking about mystery. That which was thought to be God - a stable source of meaning and value - turns out now to be no such thing. Either there is no God (options i) and ii) open up) or else God is not what God was thought to be. In other words the context of suffering is one where we are brought closer to reality and closer to God. For they are the same thing in the end. Option iii) is essentially a declaration of faith.


This was a sermon I gave at the funeral of a teenage girl who had taken her own life:

We have come and gathered in this church today to mourn the death of _____; to lament for a life lost all too soon; to seek some measure of understanding of what has been, and perhaps, some hope for what will be.

In all of the tragedies offered up in our human life, very few are as severe or as painful as the loss sustained by ________'s family. It is a loss which shatters all the foundations on which a family is built up - the bonds of love and trust which hold a family together. As the reading from the book of Lamentations puts it - "In all the world has there been such sorrow?" And this shock and grief is not confined to ________'s own family, for it is something which affects the entire community, all of us gathered here today. For we do share life with each other. We are not separate from each other. We are our brother's keeper, and our sister's keeper. And so this wound, which is so overwhelming for _______'s family, is also a wound in our community, our fellowship of neighbours and friends. Where do we go from here?

When someone takes their own life, we who are left behind are confronted with questions. The pain inside demands an answer, and so the mind tortures itself with doubt and worries. Was there something that I could have said differently that might have prevented this? Was there something I could have done that would have eased the pain in _______'s heart? If only I hadn't done this or said that. This is our natural reaction, it is a reaction of care and concern which demonstrates the love we had for _______. But ultimately, there can be no final answers; there certainly cannot be any final blame. We are confronted, in _______'s taking of her own life, with a deep and a very painful mystery. And all we can ask is 'why?' Perhaps most of all, we ask, 'Why God? Where were you in all this?' For it seems to me that when we are faced with pain that we do not understand, when we come close to being overwhelmed by it, what is most painful is the meaning of what has happened. We ask the question why. Why God? Why?

In our gospel reading we heard the story of the death of Lazarus, which also gathered a community together in grief. When Jesus comes to Mary and Martha he is too late to prevent Lazarus' death - Lazarus, whom he loved and befriended. And it wasn't that Jesus couldn't get there in time - he chose to delay for a few days. And both Mary and Martha ask him why, saying "Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus wouldn't have died." We don't know why Jesus didn't come immediately. Just as we don't know why nothing prevented _______'s death. We do know that Jesus was terribly upset by the death, and by the grief of the community. And in consequence, Jesus acts to raise Lazarus from death, to unbind him from his shroud and release him from his tomb. Lazarus is set free from death - a promise of resurrection that is extended to all who trust in Jesus.

But why couldn't Jesus just have prevented the death in the first place? Why couldn't God make a world which doesn't have suffering in it? Why can't he tell us how and why it all makes sense - why is it that this world is the sort of place that _______ couldn't cope with, when she had so much to live for, and there was so much love available for her? I have no easy answer for that question. We live within the world that He has created, where we must wrestle and struggle with this mystery of human pain and suffering. But in the face of that suffering, I do believe that there is the possibility of hope; and that hope is the only answer we can find, which might heal our wounds.

For Christians follow an innocent man who was hung to death on a cross; and a representation of that event hangs above me now. And his cry from the cross was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For Jesus also felt abandoned by God, even he couldn’t understand what it was that was happening. And yet on the morning of the third day, he was raised to life again, which is why we still talk about him over 2000 years later. This might seem just to replace one mystery with another, but what has changed is that we can hope. For when we are confronted with pain that we don’t understand, when we feel cheated by life, we still have a choice. We can say that life is meaningless, that it doesn’t make sense, and reject everything that God has given to us. But if we do that, we never move away from the cross. We remain rooted in our pain and we never get to Easter morning. For the alternative is to say, although I don’t, although I can't understand how this tragedy can make sense, I trust… I trust that God is in charge, that He loves us, and that no one who is truly loved is ever lost. For love is eternal, it is what the world is made of, and it is what the maker of this world is made of.

In the face of the pain of this tragic event, if we can trust in God, if we can hold on to hope, we can trust that one day we will share in that resurrection when, finally, we will understand how and why it all makes sense. On that day we shall be reunited with those we love, and then there will be no more pain, there will be no more grief and sorrow, and God will gently wipe away every tear from our eyes.


I see the personal problem as much the most important and significant question to address. That is why I want to know what (humourless) atheists would say to people in concrete situations. Do they choose option i) or ii) or do they choose different ones? It's not a trivial request and the discussion will forever share a certain abstract and unreal quality until answers are provided.

"Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don't mean visions and other forms of sense experience which show us the 'existence of this being', but, eg, sufferings of various sorts. They neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts, - life can force this concept on us." (Wittgenstein, 1950)

Why is it that it was the highly educated in Paris who were so shocked by the Lisbon earthquake, whereas those who had experienced the suffering carried on with their prayers? Could it be that for all their intellectual refinement they were not as in touch with reality as the poor Portuguese? It is, after all, part of the logic of belief in God that non-belief is evidence of delusion, of a failure to properly grasp the nature of reality.


Can the ladder be climbed up? Or is it simply delusional to think that life is meaningful?

One of the things that I feel is often missed in discussion with atheists is the necessary connection between 'God' and 'meaning/purpose'. From my perspective you cannot have one without the other - which means that if meaning and purpose are accepted as part and parcel of human life then that necessarily implies a belief in God.

Of course, the word 'God' is not the crucial thing here. The attainment of union with that meaning and purpose could be called Nirvana and still be referring to the same thing. The language that has been developed in our culture happens to be drawn from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The way in which we talk about things that are worthwhile, indeed, what sort of things we count as being worthwhile, are inherited from this Christian context.

What is important is not the words or rituals that are used but the life that is lived. And where the life is lived with hope, integrity and purpose - there is God.

"What can we bring to the Lord?
What kind of offerings should we give him?
Should we bow before God
with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer him thousands of rams
and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
to pay for our sins?

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6.6-8 NLT)


I was profoundly struck by Scott g's comment (here)"pirsig painted constant attempts to have us resonate with a model of 'quality,' both by what it is and what it isn't, and i would expect you to constantly attempt to paint whatever you need to to have us resonate with 'god.' this is the difference between what you do, and what pirsig does. what pirsig does is enlightening, and what you do is frustrating. pirsig wants us to get it. you seem to not want us to get it."

I think I have been at fault in these discussions. The first fault is one which the interlocutors at Stephen's site have picked up on, describing me as having a strategy "of obfuscation and smokescreen delivered with an air of intellectual and spiritual superiority." I am culpable of intellectual arrogance. Specifically: I do believe that no open-minded person with a genuine curiosity about the issues could remain a humourless atheist; I do see it as an intellectual backwater driven more by a polemical agenda than a heartfelt pursuit of truth. Which is why I enjoy engaging with sophisticated atheists so much - they recognise, inter alia, that a) there is more to Christianity than Modern Protestantism; b) that the rhetoric of science doesn't match up with the reality; c) that the heritage of Christianity is still dominant in Western societies; d) that Christianity and other religions engage in certain humanly essential pursuits which need to be addressed by anything purporting to replace it.

I think I need to repent of some intellectual arrogance, and that repentance needs principally to take the form of listening more attentively to interlocutors. What went wrong with the recent conversation at Stephen Law's site would seem to be that I lost track of what was actually being asked.

There is a second fault flowing from this, and from the above. I have been engaging in the argument on secular terms and it is becoming more and more clear to me that the framework of the debate is inherently atheistic. That is, it is impossible to explain the word 'God' and all that it means whilst accepting a secular frame of reference (and by secular I mean the late Modern Protestant framework that most Philosophy of Religion is pursued within).

Scott correctly identifies the solution: 'pirsig painted constant attempts to have us resonate with a model of 'quality,' both by what it is and what it isn't, and i would expect you to constantly attempt to paint whatever you need to to have us resonate with 'god.'

I think this is exactly right. I need to talk positively about what God means - God as understood and explored within the mainstream Christian tradition. God is not a concept to be defined but a reality to be explored. And I have no desire to hide that in a smokescreen.


What I am really thinking about is a discussion of 'the way'. Protestant cultures have a high reverence for words - it is a legacy of the technological revolution which put the Bible into every household, as the immediate source of authority. Yet words are ultimately useless. Another Wittgenstein reference: 'it has been impossible for me to say one word in my writings about all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?'

I do need to talk about the way - about how meaning and purpose are integrated into a life - about how the presence of suffering not only doesn't destroy that meaning but is tied up with it, in that the most profound understandings of meaning and purpose come on the far side of the suffering, not before.

And the way is not something reducible to words. It has to be shown in order to make any sense. Which brings us back to where I began - with Jesus. Christianity makes no sense without him, without what he taught, how he lived, how he died and rose again. The way I would want to describe is the way that he walked. It is not a matter of words but of the Word - the logos. The logic which animates Christian life, and which can't ultimately be wrapped up in neat and tidy definitions. It can only be shown with a life.


An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.

Wittgenstein, 1948


"...and that is exactly what the President did on that terrible day: when America needed to be protected, George Bush was projecting an aura of protectedness; when America needed to be safe, George Bush was looking like safety; when America needed to be strong, George Bush was exuding something like strength. When you watch that clip again, in Michael Moore's detestable piece of propaganda or elsewhere, remind yourself, This is what a President is for: projecting, smiling, posing, waving, doing nothing."

That or he was simply out of the loop.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

Smashing. 4/5

Also: this is good news, especially the Arctic sequence (which was completely cut out of the cinema version).

Mersea on Channel 4 about the petrol shortages

Report here. Very pleased that they highlighted the posters for the Transition Island Mersea process.

(H/T TMAC, who really should enable commenting functions on his site!)


A short story by Isaac Asimov, which has some relevance to present debates.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


The dangers of Obamania: "like Reagan before him, Barack Obama is having a narcotic effect on the American psyche, dulling their lived awareness of the Iraq débâcle and reducing the Bush presidency to a mere aberration. His strident opposition to the war efforts in Iraq coupled with the deliberately pandering message of utopian immediacy—‘We are the change we seek’ and ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for’—are invitations to the American people to enclose themselves once again in their solipsistic cocoon, and to resume their idiotic obsession with the drama of their national life."

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (22): The problem of definitions

In the debate going on at Stephen Law's place (here) The Celtic Chimp made this comment:

"I eventually had to give up arguing with Sam. His beliefs are so vague and insubstantial that I have come to doubt that Sam himself knows what he believes. I think 'God cannot be the member of any set' was the straw that broke the camels back.
I offer fair and honest warning to anyone with a healthy respect for actually taking a definable position. Debating with Sam is like going to the movies to see a film. There are tons of adverts for forthcoming movies and then the credits roll."

I thought this was quite an amusing image, but it needs a decent response - click 'full post' for text.

In a debate where one person refuses to give a concrete definition of their terms, it is understandable that the other parties become frustrated because this seems to go against all the norms of proper philosophical debate. However, what this reveals is the desire for 'definitions' - and this desire is one of the main targets of Wittgenstein's philosophical therapy.

Some paragraphs edited from this essay.

For Wittgenstein the source of the traditional approach to philosophy was Socrates (he sometimes called the source of confusion ‘Plato’s method’).. He once said to his friend Drury [Quoted in The Danger of Words, M O’C Drury, Thoemmes Press, 1996, p115.], ‘It has puzzled me why Socrates is regarded as a great philosopher. Because when Socrates asks for the meaning of a word and people give him examples of how that word is used, he isn’t satisfied but wants a unique definition. Now if someone shows me how a word is used and its different meanings, that is just the sort of answer I want.’ Or consider these remarks, the first made in 1931, the second in 1945: ‘Reading the Socratic dialogues one has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time! What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?’; ‘Socrates keeps reducing the Sophist to silence, - but does he have right on his side when he does this? Well it is true that the Sophist does not know what he thinks he knows; but that is no triumph for Socrates. It can’t be a case of “You see! you don’t know it!” - nor yet, triumphantly, of “So none of us knows anything”.’

I expect that Wittgenstein had in mind a passage such as this one, from Socrates’ first speech in the Phaedrus: ‘in every discussion there is only one way of beginning if one is to come to a sound conclusion, and that is to know what one is discussing... Let us then begin by agreeing upon a definition’. In the conclusion of the Phaedrus Socrates restates this: ‘a man must know the truth about any subject that he deals with; he must be able to define it.’

For Wittgenstein it is this emphasis upon definability in words which is the source of all our metaphysical illusions. For Wittgenstein Socrates was the source of all our metaphysical troubles, and the source of (for example) Descartes’ ‘clear and distinct ideas’ lies ‘ deep in us as the forms of our language’. It seems clear that, as Baker and Hacker put it in their commentary on the Investigations [GP Baker and PMS Hacker, Wittgenstein: Meaning and Understanding, Blackwell, 1997, p350], ‘Wittgenstein noted that some of the deep distortions of meaning, explanation and understanding originate with Plato’.

Consider this remark of Wittgenstein’s from 1931: ‘People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say that don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. As long as there continues to be a verb ‘to be’ that looks as if it functions in the same way as ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink’, as long as we still have the adjectives ‘identical’ ‘true’ ‘false’ ‘possible’, as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space etc etc, people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. And what’s more, this satisfies a longing for the transcendent, because in so far as people think they can see the “limits of human understanding’ they believe of course that they can see beyond these’.

Fergus Kerr has written that ‘The history of theology might even be written in terms of periodic struggles with the metaphysical inheritance’ [Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, Blackwell, 1986, p187.] and it does seem as if there is something intrinsic to metaphysical endeavour which is inimical to the practice of theology, certainly on a post-Wittgensteinian account of metaphysics. The argument ultimately concerns the nature of language and how far it can express religious truth. For Wittgenstein ‘the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life’ [Culture and Value, p85] and I think that this is wholly in tune with Wittgenstein’s comment that he would by no means prefer a continuation of his work to a change in the way people live which would make all these questions superfluous.’

For Wittgenstein it is always action which is primary - ‘In the beginning was the deed’ - and our language gains its sense from being embodied in certain practices. Consider the following passage (written in 1937): ‘Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.’


The reason why the Chimp finds me evasive, and others call me 'more slippery than soap' is because a) I don't believe we can define God, b) I don't think definitions are the be-all and end-all of fruitful discussion, but most of all c) because I accept that 'practice gives the words their sense' - and it is only by attending to the practice of Christian life, most of all in the Eucharist, that Christian understandings of God can be found.


Forgot to take a picture this morning, so this is a picture of Ollie from a few nights ago.

Today's link: an interview with Ron Moore (creator of the new Battlestar Galactica). Key quote:
"I was raised Catholic, and I'm a recovering Catholic now. I became interested in various Eastern religions, and now I've sort of settled into somewhat of an agnosticism and sort of a general interest in the subject. I think in the show I felt it was a part that was really noticeably missing from the Star Trek universe. Gene Roddenberry felt very strongly that by the 23rd and 24th centuries that all the major religions had vanished and it was all regarded as superstition. That was his view of the future. I just never quite bought that. I thought, that's part of who we are, it's part of what it is to be human, to seek to answer the questions of: Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more? What happens after you die? It didn't seem like that was going to go away.

So I sort of felt its absence in the Star Trek universe, and then felt like that was something I would really portray in Galactica. And then as the Cylons became human-looking, when we decided that they would look like us, it just raised a whole host of issues that went in this direction: How they thought of themselves, why they wanted to kill humanity, that they saw themselves as humanity's children but felt they could never really come into their own until they had killed their parents. Already You're dealing with these metaphysical and physical arenas."

Friday, June 06, 2008


Not sure if this was a profound parable or just a very enjoyable sf story - that is, if it's a parable, what is it a parable of? Religion? Very good in any case, with some stunning imagery. 4/5


Play a computer at chess and 'watch it think'. Quite fun, although when I got it into zugzwang it hung the software. Which I guess is the equivalent of sulking :)

Reasonable Atheism (21): Atheism and moral relativism

Some engagement with Tony Lloyd's logic (which I mostly agree with).

Sam's comments in italics.

If X follows from Y then it is not the case that you have Y and not X.

Minor quibble - I think you need the word 'necessarily' in there to exclude other conditions, but we can take that as read.

Moral subjectivism “M” would follow from Atheism “A” (“M follows from A”) if, and only if, you cannot have not-M and A at the same time. If we can show not-M and A then we have refuted “Moral subjectivism follows from Atheism”.

So far so good.


The import of a logical assertion of “M follows from A” is that it is inconsistent to hold “A and not-M”.

I do not see any contradiction in:
1. God does not exist
2. You should do what is right
Indeed there cannot be any contradiction. Whether God does, or does not, exist is a factual statement: an “is” statement. Whether we should do what is right is an ethical statement: an “ought” statement. The oft repeated maxim “you cannot get from ‘is’ to ‘ought’” can be rephrased as “an ‘ought’ statement does not follow from an ‘is’ statement”.

This is where it starts to get complicated, a) because no definition of God is offered, and b) because of the reliance on 'no ought from is'. A Christian would deny b) because of their understanding of a) (and their 'definition' of God probably differs also). So if the premises are different it's not surprising that different conclusions follow.

Mind you, Peter Hitchens may not agree that you cannot get from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. Let’s ignore the maxim and look in a little more detail. What does “moral subjectivism” mean? It plainly means that one considers morality to be a function of something about the subject. “It’s right, because I like it” would be a good summary of the position. So person does not subscribe to moral relativism if they hold that “it is not necessarily right just because I like it”.

Not sure I'd run with 'It's right because I like it'. I would rather have something like 'I choose what is right'. Not sure this affects the underlying logic though.

“It would be wrong to kill Elton John even though I would dearly like to” would be an example of an objective moral statement, if I held to that I would be denying Moral Subjectivism.

The question at issue is whether atheism offers any intellectual support to that statement. Also, saying 'it would be wrong to...' could simply be a pragmatic recognition of social mores. What is the atheist meaning when they say this?

Is there any contradiction in:

1. God does not exist
2. It would be wrong to kill Elton John even though I would dearly like to

No. For it to be a contradiction would be to add a third premise:

3. If God does not exist then nothing is wrong.

I accept 3. I would also affirm the reverse - if something is wrong (outside of our choices and preferences, either individually or collectively) then God exists. That's a central part of what I understand the word 'God' to mean.

There is nothing contradictory in holding that some things would be wrong if God does not exist.

This is what needs to be unpacked. This doesn't need to be in the sense of providing a 'basis' or 'foundation' for something being wrong (although that's perfectly possible). What I am after is something distinguishing 'holding something to be wrong' from 'I choose (or like) X'.


Even though it is possible to hold to moral objectivism and atheism at the same time without contradiction it may be in fact impossible. It may not contradict the meanings of the word but may contradict the facts about how people are. Does, in practice, Moral Subjectivism follow from Atheism?

“Blackness follows from raven-ness” (all ravens are black) can be refuted by showing a raven that is not black. If we change the hypothesis to say “Blackness generally follows from raven-ness” we can refute that by showing a lot of ravens that are not black, enough to rule out the word “generally”.

On the empirical side I give you Japan and China. The vast majority of these populations are atheist. The vast majority are not moral subjectivists, they do not think it is fine to act however one wants but that you should do what is right whether one likes it or not.

I agree with this. What I find interesting is how their "atheism" differs from that offered in the West, ie they have something to put in its place as a frame of reference for evaluating moral situations. I want to know what a Western atheist puts in place of the inherited Christianity.

“I've not seen it refuted anywhere”

You have now. But more importantly Peter Hitchens has heard it refuted. The above is the general import of Christopher Hitchens’ more colourful question: (paraphrasing from memory) “are you telling me that before the Ten Commandments came the Israelites wandered the wilderness thinking that murder, adultery and false witness was perfectly acceptable until God told them to “cut it out”?”.

The distinctive part about the Ten Commandments is the first half, not the second (and the first half gives specific weight to the second). I recently read that the first elements of the Ten Commandments are unique to Israel.

I repeat the original allegation. Not only does Atheism not entail Moral Relativism but Peter Hitchens knew that when he wrote the piece. He wrote it because of the rhetorical effect it would have not because he thought it true. That is defined as “bullshit”.

My concern is that the logical point (you don't have to be a moral relativist if you're an atheist, look at the Chinese) is being used to evade responsibility for the pragmatic social consequences (most atheists within UK society are moral relativists; the one led to the other historically; and moral relativism contributes to the breakdown of society). I've asked before about this - I want to know what are the generators of moral growth within an atheistic (Western, humourless) frame of reference?

ADDENDUM - picking up one thing from Tony's later comment: "It depends on what you mean by “appeal can be made”. Do you mean that, in the last analysis it is the individual who decides what to do? In that case the statement is true, but trivially so. Even with an authority you have decide whether to obey it or not. In the last analysis the Pope is a catholic because his individual conscience tells him to be."

I don't think it is trivially true - partly because of an understanding of 'obedience' but more profoundly because of the nature of moral growth. 'Ah, now I understand' doesn't seem to be possible if there is nothing outside of the individual's choices to determine what is right and wrong. Conscience undoubtedly has a crucial place, but catholic theology recognises the importance of the conscience being educated, in other words there is an iterative engagement between conscience and authority that leads to right judgement. I want to know what stands in the place of the authority for the (western, humourless) atheist.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Atheism is the opium of the people

John Milbank on atheism here.

"Atheism is bourgeois oppression. Atheism is the opium of the people—it claims to discover an ontology which precludes all hope."
(H/T Faith and Theology)


A wonderful day for a sail.

Reasonable Atheism (20): Atheism and choosing the good

This series is meandering a little bit at the moment - but that's OK, I know where it's going to end up and all these byways are fertile. However, that Peter Hitchens' piece has provoked so many comments that I thought I'd put in something a bit more explicit (I've also been commenting fairly heftily on Stephen Law's site, in response to his posts). Click 'full post' for text.

Can an atheist be good? Obviously, I know lots who are.

The more interesting questions are: 1. does the social acceptance of an agreed framework of values tend to enable people to be good or otherwise? And: 2. does atheism undermine the social acceptance of an agreed framework?

(I think this was Peter Hitchens' essential point - that it is the breakdown of common belief that has undermined social virtue. It happens to have been Christianity in the British context, but it doesn't need to be.)

In answer to question 1. I would say yes. Without a common agreed framework within which society can function you end up with a more or less violent social order. You need an agreed framework of values, and you need that framework of values to be legally enforced, in order that the highest levels of human flourishing can be reached. If there is no agreed framework then there is simply an imposition of violence, either from a central authority to coerce obedience, or between more or less strong groups and individuals. (I think this is Milbanks' point about the ontology of violence.)

Note: this common agreed framework does not have to be Christianity, it does not even have to be theistic - it can definitely be atheistic, as with China (for the time being).

In answer to question 2. I would say that - again in the British context - atheism has undermined the social order, and to this extent I would agree with Hitchens. This is not a point about individual atheists, it is that there needs to be something outside of the individual conscience to which appeal can be made. The individual conscience is not the final arbiter of the good, or, put differently, the individual conscience needs to be educated into social norms.

As I understand it, atheism doesn't (cannot) recognise anything outside of the individual conscience to which appeal can be made. From a (humourless) atheist point of view, for a common social order to be established, each individual member of the community needs to be intellectually persuaded of the merits of that order. The individual conscience is the lynchpin of the system, around which everything else pivots.

What this misses out is the panoply of ways in which human beings operate non-rationally (note, NOT irrationally) on which their rationality depends. You could say that atheism has a hopelessly inadequate anthropology. In particular, choosing of the good depends upon evaluation, which is a form of emotional intelligence. Why shouldn't I have that extra portion of chocolate dessert? Why shouldn't I lie and cheat and steal and so on?

The Christian answer to those questions is not, ultimately, that they are "wrong" but that they are incongruous with our deepest desires - our deepest desire being, in the end, to be united with God. The rules and regulations (eg the Ten Commandments) are guidance to teach us about ourselves, and to indicate how we can best flourish.

I think atheism has destroyed this conception. Or, to phrase that more precisely, I see atheism as one aspect of Modernity, and Modernity has destroyed this conception. We are 'after virtue'.

I am very interested to hear atheist perspectives on the two questions above.

UPDATE: What John Michael Greer (a druid) writes here is relevant to the overall point.


Another one for all you Star Trek fans out there, because I know you like it like this:
Star Trek TNG as directed by Kenneth Williams (oo er Mrs).

Monday, June 02, 2008

Bread of Life (5): The offence of John 6

John 6 begins with the feeding of the 5,000, then there is a little break and movement and then Jesus gives a sermon in Capernaum. Jesus says, “Unless you eat the bread which is my flesh you have no life in you.” Is this a reference to the Eucharist or is this to be understood symbolically? Is it, for example, a question of beliefs, that eating the flesh means coming to him and drinking his blood, drinking wine is about believing in him?

Generally, when Jesus realises that he is being misunderstood, he is not an incompetent teacher! He does correct people when they get the wrong end of the stick. For example with Nicodemus, Christ says “Unless you are born again then you don’t enter the Kingdom” and Nicodemus says, “How can you be born again, can you come again from your mother’s womb?” So Jesus goes on and says “Unless you are born from above.” He clarifies what he means. When the disciples ask him 'what do you mean avoid the leaven of the Pharisees?', again he unpacks what he means, that here he was speaking in a figurative fashion. However, there are other occasions when he is at first understood to be saying something literally and people take offence. For example, in John 8 when he says, “Before Abraham, I am” - he was there, he was saying he is ancient and the Jews object, they take offence. Jesus sees that they take offence but he re-emphasises it to drive home the point, which is when then says “Before Abraham was, I am,” which is such a bold and provocative and virtually blasphemous thing for him to say in the context, because he is expressing his identity with the Father. When Moses says to God, “What shall I say to the people so that they know I come from you?”, God says, “Tell them I am.” This is the name of God and so when Jesus says “Before Abraham was, I am,” he is expressing something powerful, he is emphasising. When Jesus is misunderstood as being literal when in fact he is being figurative, he corrects the mistake; but when he is understood as being literal and people take offence because he is telling the truth, then he really redoubles the point, he emphasises it, he escalates it.

So what is going on in John 6? Is it that he is being misunderstood and then he corrects, or is it that he is being understood rightly, the people take offence and then he redoubles his emphasis? After the feeding of the five thousand, after all the themes have been set in motion and when the Jewish people take offence (as have some of his disciples) Jesus repeats and redoubles the emphasis on what he is teaching. He says four times, "Eat my flesh", and as he is re-emphasising it he changes his language. In Greek the word for eat is phago, and as he is re-emphasising he changes the word to use the Greek trogo, which means chew. He doesn't just say "Unless you eat my flesh," he says, "Unless you chew my flesh." So you can see how he is really just hammering this home.

There's another factor to consider, that the figurative language of 'eat my flesh' did have an existing meaning at the time - as it still does - and it meant something very, very hostile. To say to someone "I will eat your flesh," is to say to someone, "I will kill you." There is an existing figurative meaning that's in Scripture, e.g. in Micah 3. But that was the figurative sense. I am persuaded that Jesus meant himself to be taken literally, which is why the Jewish people take offence, because in Leviticus it says, "You shall not drink the blood because the blood has the life." That's even for animals, let alone a human being. So it is doubly offensive, and those who take offence at it fall away. This is the only example in Scripture when disciples turn away from Christ over a matter of doctrine. Jesus is teaching them and they find it impossible to cope with. It is also where Judas turns. There are all sorts of things embedded in this narrative!

Niall Ferguson: Why the US needs McCain

Found here.

Peter Hitchens on atheism

"Yes, I did mention Atheism at the beginning. For that is at the root of all this. Once people don't acknowledge any moral authority outside themselves, they can choose which rules to take seriously and which not to entirely according to their own feelings at any time. They will generally do this on the basis of what suits them. It begins with little things, and moves on to the great. We are now at the stage where it is moving on quite fast.

One of the key features of atheism is that atheists themselves are unable to grasp this point. We're just as good as religious people, they respond, if not better. Maybe so. Religious people who understand their creeds know perfectly well that they're no better than anyone else. That's not the issue. What is?.

It is this. What do you really mean by 'good'? Why (for example) is fidelity better than adultery, patience better than impatience? ... And what, apart from your own convenience, impels you to follow this good you allege you support? The luxury atheists of the British and American middle classes live in areas, and work in places, where the Christian rules of right and wrong are still by and large accepted and lauded in public.... Now, take away the large houses and gardens, the peaceful streets, the plentiful money and easily-hired servants of the luxury suburbs. And put the same people in the thin-walled, cramped boxes of the sink estates, with their criminal godfathers, their gangs, their burglars and drug dealers, their fatherless children and unpoliced nights. And see how 'good' the luxury atheists would be ( or how good anyone would be). Some of them would go under in a few days, beaten, terrified and cowed as so many are in these places, and with nothing to hope for. Some of them would , I suspect, quickly find that they made quite good louts, with knives, and ready to use them. Why not? What, in their universe, would be wrong with that if it suited them? There's no rational point, really, in being good in circumstances where being good gets you knifed. It's an irrational act -unless you have been taught to recognise the importance of absolute good."


Stress relief found here.