Monday, February 1, 2016

The Reductionist Worldview

Our culture is often a reductionistic one. That is, our culture is what I like to call a “nothing-but” culture. Marriage is nothing-but a legal contract; gender is nothing-but a social construct; sexual behavior is nothing-but legal constraints and social taboos; beauty is nothing-but superficiality; life is nothing-but aimless wandering and contrived purpose, and on and on it goes ad nauseam.

What has been the result of this purpose? The principle that has taken over is that life is for whatever brings the most pleasure to us. For some, this means a fully hedonistic lifestyle. For others, this means attempting philanthropy to feel better. For others still, this involves paralysis and despair (e.g., the existentialists). Finally, for some, this means bringing much pain and suffering to others.

In all cases, the principle behind it is the same: life is purposeless, senseless, meaningless, vacuous, valueless, hopeless, and cold. Make of it what you can. My duty today is not to tell you that such a principle always works itself out pragmatically in the way of Hitler. In fact, I’ve taken pains above to show even some ways where the behavior at least seems to be quite positive.

My main point is two-fold: first, such selfish or hateful actions are allowed by such a principled worldview. Second, it is desirable that such a worldview be false. A worldview answers at least four major kinds of questions:

1.     Metaphysics—What kinds of things exist?
2.     Epistemology—What can we know?
3.     Axiology/Aesthetics—What is the good, and the beautiful?
4.     Teleology—What is the purpose or meaning of life?

The nothing-but worldview that allows for suffering and despair as completely normal very nearly strikes most of us as absurd. We instinctively recognize that such despair and dysfunction ought not to be. But if it ought not to be, then the nothing-but worldview is false. Perhaps we cannot show it is false (we certainly have not shown it, as of yet); but at the very least, we have suggested it is desirable that it is. And that, my friends, should make you pause.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Passing on Our Implicit Principles to the Next Generation

The birth of my son grows closer each and every day, and we are growing more excited. Despite all of the excitement, however, I do have genuine concerns. Among them is the concern that I will not be able to teach my son the appropriate principles and reasoning skills he will undoubtedly need in the ever-changing world. What I mean by that is this: it is very easy to teach someone what you believe, but very hard to prevent them from taking that and running off in a completely unintended direction. Sometimes that unintended direction is great: it provides new insights and fresh thinking. Other times, that direction is horrible, and results in apostasy, or immorality, or cruelty, or shameful acts.

What makes the difference? I have heard it often said that a teacher’s students will take writings and teachings much farther than they were ever meant to go. But how does such a thing happen? It seems to me that what is often simply assumed, instead of taught and argued for, are the background assumptions and principles. We may think we are teaching some particular principle, when in fact our children and students hear something completely different.

Here is a concrete example: Christian young people often see homosexual actions and marriage in at least a permissible light (if not a promotional one!), and many adults are absolutely baffled as to where they have gone wrong. Many have called for stronger doctrinal teaching, stronger hermeneutics, stronger ethics, and more. And to a certain degree, all of this would be quite helpful. But I can’t help but notice particular background assumptions that they either have absorbed from the current culture or else derived on their own from the Christian teachings they have heard. “Love one another!” they will say. “Doesn’t this mean that love is good? Who are we to judge? Let them love one another!” They often thus see prohibitions against homosexual behavior as prejudiced as efforts to subjugate black people in America.

And yet I wonder where they would be if the background assumptions never made explicit were taught to them. Namely, some of these principles are: marriage has a particular essence, and is not a “nothing-but” legal contract; God created the biological sexes to function in particular ways; that love, justice, and moral values are all intertwined, not at odds, and thus following God’s moral laws are inherently loving, while violating them is inherently unloving. Many more could be stated.

These background assumptions are strongly tied to worldview. Worldview studies strongly suggest that worldviews, at least initially, are absorbed, and they are done so through culture and immediate influences. This is why parents cannot simply sit back and not teach their children anything. It is not simply that it should not be done; it is that it cannot be avoided. Our children will learn something from us; what will it be?

I suspect one of the main reasons these presuppositions were taken for granted is that they themselves were often inherited by the parents. They assumed it would pass on; but when culture changes, many of the old assumptions do not transfer to the next generation. That can be good or bad. The good news is that worldviews can be changed; assumptions can be challenged. Nonetheless, we are now in a culture that has their own largely unexamined worldview assumptions, and sadly, many times they are not up for debate (e.g., approximately 99% of abortion debates talk past each other. I mean, seriously: if you know a pro-life person opposes abortion because they think it is murder, why in the world would you counter with, “A woman has the right over her own body!”? Unless they have a background assumption that murder is permissible in these cases, they should instead focus on arguments that address the belief that abortion is murder.).

This is where we need good apologetics, theology, and philosophy. And above all that, we need godly wisdom.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

How Incorrect and Unexamined Background Principles Can Affect Your Thinking

In the last post, we discussed how principles are present in everyone’s lives. Now in this post, I’d like to discuss a very important way this can affect you. Lurking in the background of every attempt at reasoning, whether excellent or terrible or anywhere in between, is a set of principles. Now I’m not advocating that we go out and list these principles any time we’re about to engage in reasoning; but being aware of these can help.

I read a recent “deconversion” story of a former Christian-turned-atheist recently. In his story, he explained how he loved Christ and wanted to be a Christian. Further, he wanted to have strong proofs for his faith. He mentioned something like, “I wanted to find irrefutable arguments and evidence for God’s existence and Christianity’s truth, or at least arguments that were so good no one could deny them.” When he didn’t find such arguments and evidence, he abandoned the faith.

Now this post is not to discuss the various evidences and arguments for Christianity’s truth and God’s existence, though I certainly think those are quite good. I do want to discuss his principle. It’s quite unreasonable.

I see a variant of this thinking quite often—sometimes even from budding young apologists—but what I don’t see is anyone attempting to justify it. Why, in order to be justified in being a Christian, must the evidence be so good that no one can deny it? I don’t see a good reason. Even the “extraordinary claims” line often tossed about doesn’t justify such thinking (it only justifies “extraordinary evidence,” not evidence so good no one could deny it).

In fact, not only do we not see a reason to accept the standard, we can actually see a reason to reject it. Given that the goal of Christianity, so to speak, is not merely to believe in God, or even merely to believe in the intellectual facts of the Gospel, but instead to enter into a loving, trusting relationship—with God as our Father and Christ as our Savior where we follow him with our lives—that we call “faith,” it would actually be counterproductive for God to have the world be such that we could not deny the truths of the Gospel. God does not want compulsory relationships; in fact, love is such that “compulsory love” is an oxymoron.

Notice the wide gulf that exists between “can deny x,” and “cannot accept x;” they are not identical. There is no good reason to accept such a standard. In fact, such a standard implicitly says, “If I am not forced to believe, I will not believe.” But this, then, is a dispositional matter of the will, not the intellect. And that is something for which we need God and his Word.

Principles or Pragmatics?

Pragmatism vs. Principle. Which one should win? This comes up in many areas of life, including politics, religion, finances, etc. In either case, the popular idea seems to be that if you want to get the result you truly desire, pragmatism is king. And there is a certain sense in which that is technically correct: there are times where our principles will not yield us the results we want.

However, I think there is a fundamental issue often overlooked in the popular discussions on pragmatics: the issue that pragmatism is itself a principle. Just as one cannot avoid having a worldview or particular philosophy (on pain of self-refutation), so one cannot avoid the snare of principled thinking, even in pragmatic considerations.

For consider this: one thinks one should be pragmatic in a particular situation, in order to gain x. After all, the only reason this is even a debate is because people do what works. The “principle of pragmatism” is applied any time pragmatic considerations are invoked precisely because the very definition of pragmatism entails doing what works.

Why is this important? What affect can this have on discussions? It seems there is only one contribution I have with this idea: one must admit that principles govern his life, and he must be aware of them. Being aware of our principles allows us to evaluate them and the way we see the world. This is important because we want to have an accurate picture of the world, instead of a distorted one.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Where Have I Been, and Where Am I Going?

So, where have I been, and what will I be doing? As some of you may know from prior posts, last semester was quite busy. I was wrapping up both coursework and my thesis for my MA in philosophy of religion. It was a lot of work, but finally, Molinism and “Divine Voodoo Worlds”: A Critique of Dean Zimmerman’s Anti-Molinist Argument was both completed and successfully defended. Because of that, and making it through my classes, I graduated with that degree this past December!

So now, what’s ahead? I’ve currently applied to half a dozen PhD programs, and there are a few more I am considering. It’s tough going getting into one; there’s no guarantee I do so at all. One thing that some “lay people” are not aware of: just because you are smart or talented or have a great track record or test well (or all of these things), doesn’t mean you’ll get into a PhD program. At this level, very often all or nearly all of the applicants have all of these things going for them. I don’t profess to be any kind of expert with respect to admissions criteria; nonetheless, I do know it is very difficult. In any case, I just ask for prayer for God’s will to be done with respect to where Jodi and I may be going (well, our whole family really).

And this brings me to my next subject: in early March, Jodi is due with our first child—a son! We are both very excited and grateful God would bless us with a child. We realized the other day that we are not remotely ready with respect to the room and the responsibility. Nonetheless, we believe strongly that with preparation and divine guidance, we will be OK. Plenty of people have done this before, right? Right?!

I’ll try to post more as the weeks go on. Until then, we just ask for your prayers for our family. God bless!