Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Warranted belief

As a believer, I am frequently bombarded (usually on the “sophisticated” blogosphere) with the question of why I personally believe in the existence of God. When asked this question, I can usually rattle off a few (among many) reasons: because the universe seems clearly contingent; because there is so much design which seems to imply a designer; because Near Death Experiences give compelling evidence in favor of the supernatural; because the ubiquitous nature of consciousness that is crucial to human cognitive function seems inexplicable on a naturalistic worldview; because innate human feelings such as love and goodness seem to transcend us and, arguably, have an absolute source etc. Now, it is at this point that my interlocutor will roll their eyes and ramble on about how the arguments for God’s existence have been refuted a thousand times, especially by Hume, or how NDE’s do not constitute valid scientific evidence, or how neuroscience demonstrates that consciousness surely must be dependent on the brain, or how the feelings of love and goodness are explicable in purely naturalistic evolutionary terms etc. Case closed, right? Well, no.
You see, my interlocutor has made an error in comprehension. Remember that I was asked why I believe in the existence of God, and not what logical proofs I have for the existence of God. Now, while these two questions might seem to be prima facie identical, they’re not. A warrant for belief in a specific inference is not equivalent to having logical deductive proof for that inference.

For example, it might be the case one day that my wife wakes up, after I have left for work, and discovers that the toilet seat was left up. She will immediately infer the following conclusion: my husband left the toilet seat up. Notice that this conclusion is a mere belief, as opposed to a proof. My wife has simply reasonably assumed this belief, based on the fact that I do this constantly and we’re the only two people in our house. She does not have any proof for such a belief. That is, she didn’t see me leave it up, nor has she called me and asked me if I did in fact leave it up. But the question that can be posed here is this: is my wife’s belief warranted? And surely the answer is in the affirmative. Indeed my wife has enough warrant to infer that I left the seat up. Now, could she be wrong? Yes, she could. But, does this possibility of fallibility render her inference unwarranted? No. So, even though she could be wrong, she is still warranted in holding her conclusion.

So, let us turn back to our original context, namely, belief in God. The question arises whether or not I have personal warrant for concluding, based on my reasons above, that God exists. The answer is surely that I do. Is it possible that I am mistaken in my conclusion? Of course, but that is not the point. The point is whether or not I have reasons that provide me with warrant to infer a specific conclusion, and I surely do possess these reasons.
Now, my interlocutor might claim that he himself has reasons for doubting the existence of God, or lacking a belief in the existence of God. For example, he might hold that the amount of suffering in the world is incompatible with the existence of God, or that God has not made his existence abundantly obvious, or that phenomena in the world can be explained in purely naturalistic terms, making God superfluous etc. So, is my interlocutor also warranted in his conclusions based on these reasons? Yes, he is.

We see then that both the theist and the atheist can be warranted in their conclusions even though such conclusions are mutually exclusive.
To return to my example, it could turn out that I do not remember using the bathroom that morning, and therefore it’s probable that I did not leave the seat up. So, I am warranted in my conclusion—that I did not leave the seat up--as well. Notice now that both my wife and I hold mutually exclusive inferences, yet we are both warranted in arriving at the conclusions we have arrived at. Now, when I get home we can discuss who is correct. That is, we can discuss whether I was so tired that morning that I forgot that I did in fact use the bathroom, or we can discuss whether one of the friends we had over the night before left the seat up and we never noticed etc. However, it still follows that we are both warranted in holding our beliefs.

Similarly, the theist and atheist can hammer it out constantly and provide their reasons for belief, or disbelief. However, this does not entail that both individuals cannot walk away from the discussion still warranted in their positions.
What is usually desired is logical deductive proof. And similarly, both sides can usually produce a logical proof of their own, and which one of these individuals can provide a successful proof I will leave for another time. But whether these proofs are valid, or whether they will persuade the other side is peripheral here. The point is that a conclusion can constitute a warranted belief without itself being the inference of a logical proof. And furthermore, two individuals with mutually exclusive beliefs can still both be warranted in said beliefs. Hopefully, this can help the fruitfulness (or lack thereof) of discussions such as the atheist/theist divide, in the sense that these discussions need not be predicated on who can “win” the argument, but, rather, they should predicated on simply demonstrating the reasons one has for their conclusions. People should still be able to walk away from a discussion knowing that even though they don’t agree with their interlocutor, they can still appreciate that their conclusion is warranted.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A consideration of (a restricted) religious pluralism

My father unexpectedly passed away early last year. His passing was commemorated with a memorial service whereby dozens of family members and people who had known my dad attended and offered their condolences. Many people stood up and nostalgically told stories illuminating the integrity and humorousness that my dad always employed in the public eye—you see, my dad was an extremely well-known television reporter here. I greatly enjoyed these stories, because they illuminated many aspects of my dad that I was not there to witness.
 I spent the whole twenty-two years of my life with my dad by my side, and (due to my parent’s divorce) I spent the last eight years of my life with simply my dad and I. So, I always felt like I knew my dad better than anyone else. If people said he was funny, I knew how much funnier he was. If someone said he was caring, I knew how caring he really was. With that in mind, my dad, like everyone else, was not perfect, and he certainly had major flaws. And it was these flaws that almost no one, apart from family, knew about. I felt that I alone had the most accurate and intimate understanding of who my dad was.

But, does this mean that those individuals who encountered my dad on a much more superficial level did not really know my dad? Well, while they didn’t know my father as intimately as I did, I fail to see that this entails that they didn’t know him at all. For they surely had experienced accurate aspects of my father, e.g. his charm and sense of humor, and could indeed make positive knowledge claims about what made him him.

It is probably being wondered at this point exactly what such musings have to do with the title of the post, namely, religious pluralism. Well, I believe an analogy can be drawn here with regards to our portraits of God. For when we gaze upon the face of Christianity, we see a multitude of interpretations of God and his will. The Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Unitarians, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutherans obviously all disagree about certain aspects of what God is like and which theological doctrines accurately reflect his will—otherwise there would be no reason to differentiate these denominations. But, do these differences in interpretation of God entail that these different denominations do not worship the same God? Certainly not. Just like the differing interpretations between me and someone who only knew my dad superficially does not entail that we both did not have the same individual in mind as John Morris—my dad’s name, obviously.

It should be realized that differing interpretations abound between individuals even when dealing with the same referent. I will not interpret an American flag the same way a Korean will, even though we would both have the same object in front of us. Similarly, I might not understand God in the same way a fundamentalist Christian would, again, even though we have the same entity as our referent. And should this even surprise us? Should the fact that I don’t believe God commissioned Noah to build an ark, while another Christian does, entail that, therefore, our Gods are wholly different? I fail to see how this could be so. To continue the analogy, the fact that I know my dad had a temper, while another person who knew my dad did not know this, does not entail that we don’t have knowledge of the same individual. What is true is that one of us has more accurate knowledge of my dad, and I would also promulgate this regarding differing opinions of the nature of God. Since two contradictory opinions cannot both be true, it follows that only one can be correct, but this, again, doesn’t mean that both opinions do not have God as their focal point. It simply means that one has more accurate knowledge of him.
It should seem logical that I would also predicate the above thesis of differing religions. While Muslims, Mormons, Jews and Christians all have differing interpretations and understandings of God, I fail to see that this necessitates that they all therefore worship a different God. It is not at all illogical to assert that these religions have God as their focal point. What is different is their overall portrait of God. But, we have seen that differing pictures of a single referent does not entail that that is not indeed the same referent to all.

Now I, as a Christian, do believe that Christians have a more accurate portrait and understanding of God—I believe this especially because of Jesus of Nazareth. Subsequently, I believe that Muslims and Mormons have very many misunderstandings and imperfections in their portraits of God. However, I do not find that these differences necessitate that we all, therefore, worship a different God.

It is this type of religious pluralism that I adhere to, and I see it to be a kind of restricted pluralism, if you will. It is not a pluralism that claims that all religions are true, which is logically impossible. Rather, it is a pluralism that considers that we, Muslims, Christians, Mormons etc., are all worshipping the same God; granted that our worship is focalized through differing interpretations.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Atheists and their obsession with God

The odd behavior of non-believers
I am a theist, and obviously that means that I profess a positive belief in the existence of God. Naturally, a belief in God—who is claimed to be the source of being, consciousness, love etc.—shapes and molds almost all of the ways I carry out my life. I pray, go to church, read the Bible, talk about the faith I share, fellowship with other believers, and read books concerning my faith etc. A lot of the things I do are done with a thought towards the divine in some sense. Now, it should seem quite reasonable to state that if I lacked a belief in God, I would not concern myself with many of the aforementioned activities. Why would I pray if there’s no God to hear me? Why would I talk about the faith Christians share if I don’t share it? Surely these endeavors would be a waste of time. However, such a reasonable line of thinking seems to be absent from the “New Atheist” movement—which is ironic since atheists pride themselves on being at the frontier of the movement of reason.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that even though atheists lack a belief in God, they nevertheless still pray, or go to church, or read the Bible devotionally. Of course they don’t. But my point is this: atheists do spend a lot of time constantly discussing the very thing they claim not to believe in. Surely this is, to say the least, a bit strange. Why spend so much time arguing over, talking about, and demeaning something you belief is non-existent? Has anything ever seemed like such a waste of time and energy? I think Neil Degrasse Tyson said it perfectly:
I don’t play golf. Is there a word for non-golf players? Do non-golf players gather and strategize? Do non-skiers have a word, and come together and talk about the fact that they don’t ski? I can’t do that. I can’t gather around and talk about how much everybody in the room doesn’t believe in God. I don’t have the energy for that.
Yet, the lifestyle of the new atheists is even more embarrassing than the picture Tyson paints. It’s not as if these individuals only occasionally sit around and discuss their non-belief; rather, in many cases people are devoting so much of their time and energy to such non-belief! Think of the hundreds of thousands of blogs and websites predicated on atheism, or the dozens of books printed each year on the “delusion of belief”. Dinesh D’Souza articulates my point:
I don’t believe in unicorns, but you’ll notice that I haven’t written any books disputing the existence of unicorns. I am not the author of, for example, The Unicorn Delusion or The End of Unicorns or Unicorns Are Not Great. I don’t attend conferences on the fallacy of unicorn belief, nor do I go around debating people on whether there are in fact unicorns.
The point is, when you lack a belief in something you ignore it. Why, if you lack a belief in a supernatural entity, would you spend your energy discussing your non-belief in the existence of said entity?

Now, I anticipate the response of the non-believer: so much time is spent arguing over belief in God because our society is overrun with the delusional belief in such a thing! Perhaps if the world was populated with a bunch of people believing in invisible unicorns then we would be obligated to focus our energies on them.

But surely this is not a good analogy. It is true that if people by the millions believed in invisible unicorns I might occasionally feel obliged to “set them straight”. But, I wouldn’t see myself devoting much time at all to converting the unicornists to a-unicornists. I would, most likely, just ignore such delusions, and probably laugh incessantly anytime the topic came up. Who wouldn’t?

But, this is not the path of the atheists, who, instead of ignoring the thing they lack belief in, utilize their efforts trying to convince the believers (and themselves) that they should lack belief too! And every once in a while you’ll see an atheist come to their senses and realize how absurd their endeavor is. Take John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity. Every couple of years or so he realizes exactly how meaningless his whole cause is and attempts to jump ship. Take these claims made from him in May 2012:

I have no more desire to engage Christians. They are deluded, all of them. I have never been more convinced of this than I am now. I have better things to do. I spent 39+ years of my adult life on a delusion. If I add the years of my childhood that’s almost my entire life. Yet this is the only life I will ever have. It’s time to move on[…]I see no reason to waste large chunks of my time on this delusion anymore.

Yet a few months later Loftus was back posting full time on the blog. How sad.

Why would anyone, as Loftus articulated, want to waste large chunks of their lives on what they take to be a delusion? Why waste your resources writing blogs, writing books, posting videos, setting up conferences, and even making television broadcasts talking about the very thing that you find to be nonexistent and delusional? I mean geez, I’ll bet that John Loftus spends more time thinking about God than most the congregation of my church. Is this not insane and delusional in itself? Do not these actions on behalf of atheists beg for a psychological evaluation?

Obsession with God
It is, I dare to say, an obsession with God. Why would you waste your energies and resources on something you don’t believe in unless you are obsessed with that very something? You don’t write books and blog posts on a constant basis on a topic unless that topic is constantly on your mind.

But what does this mean for the atheist? Are they, deep down, trying to constantly resolve some sort of cognitive dissonance they harbor? Perhaps they have given up an intellectual assent to a divine being, but maybe they still feel that personal lure of something beyond themselves and beyond the world. Perhaps they still have the knowledge of the divine embedded in their consciousness or being. Why else would someone constantly spend their time discussing how much they lack belief in something, unless they are trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance that accompanies the lack of belief in said something.

 Non-believers have claimed that one reason believers meet every week is to constantly reinforce their own delusions. But what does the same line of reasoning mean with regard to atheists, who constantly (and also at least on a weekly basis) feel the need to write about, talk about, discuss, and argue about what they claim to not believe in?

Perhaps atheists are trying to reinforce their own delusions.

Monday, April 7, 2014

God's inclusive inspiration

"Ask pardon of your Lord and then turn unto Him (repentant). Lo! my Lord is Merciful, Loving. "

“Verily, that which is with God is the best for you, if you but knew it: all that which is with you is bound to end, whereas all that which is with God is everlasting.”

“ Yea, thou art merciful unto thy children when they cry unto thee, to be heard of thee and not of men, and thou wilt hear them.”

“...when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God."

Shall we care to speculate whence these verses derive? Contrary to a prima facie assumption, these verses are not from the Bible. The first two derive from the Koran, and the latter two from the Book of Mormon.
What is a Christian to make of these verses above? Is he not to agree with them? Is it not true that (as the Christian believes) God is merciful and loving, as the Koran says? Is it not true that those in service of fellow human beings are also in service of God almighty? Of course the Christian will uphold such truths regarding the nature of God. Yet, simply because other self-proclaimed holy books occasionally hit the bulls-eye regarding the character of God, this is not enough for one to grant those books the same divine status as the Bible. For there are still a multitude of verses in these aforementioned books that most Christians would adamantly disagree with. Fair enough.

However, is it not at least the case that some of these holy books are also inspired in some sense—though perhaps to a lesser degree—by God Himself? The Christian might cringe at such a thought and retort that “the Bible is the only inspired Word of God”. Yet, what exactly the word inspired means is by no means agreed upon by Christians—even fundamentalists. So if this is the case then how can we rule out a priori that other books such as the Koran, or the Book of Mormon, do not contain some hint of divine inspiration? I maintain that we cannot.

But, let us tread a step further. As I articulated above, Christians will no doubt uphold the aforementioned verses as valid reflections of God’s nature—that is, they will agree that God is merciful, loving, everlasting etc. It might seem that identifying the truth of these verses is no big deal—for an occasional true proposition about God in a written book does not necessitate that said book be labeled holy. But, an interesting question can be raised here: where does truth come from? Surely all truth derives from God himself? Just as all being, goodness, love etc., derive from God, it seems that truth must also derive from the same source. Doesn’t James 1:17 state “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning”?

But, if every good thing, which must include truth, comes from God, then surely any valid proposition regarding the nature of God must come from him as well. For where else are we to find a wellspring of pure goodness? This leads us to the conclusion that the aforementioned verses, along with hundreds like them, must ultimately derive from God. How then can we deny that these verses are not in some sense inspired by God?
I maintain that these verses are indeed inspired by God. And if they are inspired by God, then we can reach an interesting inference regarding God’s revelation: God has indeed revealed his truth outside of the Christian religion. And if this is true, then it’s time we take a closer look at religious inclusivism.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why does God exist?

Suppose I ask “why does (a) exist?” or “what is the explanation for the existence of (a)?”—an explanation here constituting a reason whereby we logically understand a thing’s existence--and I receive the answer that (b) provides the explanation for (a). A subsequent question could be posed, “what is the explanation for (b)?”, and if the explanation for (b) is (c), then it is easy to see that we have the making of a potential infinite regress of explanations—(a) is explained by (b), which is explained by (c),  on and on ad infinitum. However, an infinite chain of explanation seems logically suspect, but whether or not it is indeed suspect need not concern us here.
I believe that most would agree that an explanatory chain does in fact end somewhere. The question that is important is where exactly does it end? A naturalist would claim that it ends with the universe, while a theist would claim that it ends with God. From this perspective it might seem that both explanatory chains end in a brute fact—something that just exists for no reason, with no explanation. Therefore, it might appear that each worldview, naturalism and theism, must admit of some brute fact that eludes explanation.

 However, I maintain that this is not the case. For it is also possible—and I would argue, this is not only possible, but necessary--that the explanatory chain ends because the last member of the chain is self-explanatory. And if the last member of an explanatory chain is self-explanatory, then it is not a brute fact at all, because this member does in fact have an explanation—remember that an explanation here means a reason whereby we understand or make sense of some aspect of a thing’s being--for its existence. (Let it be known that this is exactly what the Principle of Sufficient Reason stipulates—namely, that that everything that exists either (1) has an explanation for its existence outside of itself, or (2) has an explanation for its existence contained within itself. So, the last member of an explanatory chain cannot be a brute fact, but must be self-explanatory. But, since the PSR is not crucial here, I will abstain from defending it presently.)

Now remember that, in the classical theistic tradition, God is such that his essence just is existence, because he is necessary and cannot not exist.  This means that the proposition “God must exist” is a self-evident truth, since by “God” we mean “existence itself”. Thus, the proposition really means “that which is existence itself must exist” and it should be clear that this is self-evidently true.

I maintain that if the proposition “(x) must exist” is self-evident, then we can say that (x) is self-explanatory. For the self-evidence of the above proposition entails that the essence of (x) contains its existence—that is, it is of the nature of (x) that it must exist—and, therefore, the explanation for (x)’s existence lies within itself. Contrarily, if “(x) must exist” is not self-evident then (x) requires an explanation for its existence outside of itself, and is therefore not self-explanatory. (It should be clear that the proposition “the universe must exist” is not self-evident, and therefore the universe cannot be the last member of an explanatory chain.) Therefore, since “God exists” is self-evident, we have warrant to conclude that the claim of self-explanation must be applied to God. Thus, the explanatory chain ends in God, and does not end in a brute fact.

So, if God is indeed the last member in a chain of explanation, then asking “why does God exist?” will entail an answer already inherent in the concept of God. That is, the answer will be something along the lines of “God exists because he exists”—which sounds identical to God’s claim in the Bible: I am that I am. This is exactly what a self-explanatory essence entails.