Thursday, December 19, 2013

Phil Robertson, A&E, Homosexuality, and Some Sanity

I hesitated in adding my voice to the Phil Robertson/Duck Dynasty/A&E controversy, because I didn’t feel that I had anything new to say. Until now. I want to cover a couple of points about the controversy itself, what should be the frame of the debate, and how to proceed.

First, Phil (if I say Robertson, it might be non-descript) mentioned a type of argument against homosexuality from personal preference. Not the most powerful apologetic for biblical sexuality, admittedly. But hardly offensive, either. He did mention that homosexual behavior was “sin.” That’s a word that tends to embarrass Christians. It shouldn’t. It indicates moral disagreement.

Next, he did mention his summary of his experience with blacks in Louisiana in his growing-up days. That could perhaps be offensive, but construing it as racial hatred is hyperbolic (and irrelevant to A&E’s part). In response to a question as to what is sinful, Phil then lists several sins of a sexual nature, including: homosexuality, bestiality, and fornication and adultery (though he described those rather than listing them by name). Understanding this is critical to what follows. He then quotes the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians, listing several sins that if, left unforgiven by the applied blood of Jesus Christ, will result in Hell (of course, that’s any sin).

All of what I have said has been said before. Something that keeps coming up, however, is the criticism that Phil is linking homosexuality and bestiality (“comparing” is the word that keeps arising). There are two extremely important responses to this. The first is to point out that Phil never links the two in any sense (beyond the question). He doesn’t claim one leads to the other, nor does he imply that any one person who participates is participating in the others, or that any are better or worse. The second consideration is that, yes, he is comparing them—in one specific sense. The sense of the question, which was: “What, in your mind, is sinful?” So, we can see it’s simply a mistake to complain that he is linking homosexuality and bestiality, just as it’s a mistake to say he was linking adultery and bestiality (beyond the aforementioned general classification).

Next, there are two areas that should help to frame the debate. The first is the underlying principle that moral disagreement equals hate. The fact is this type of principle is virtually impossible to prove. If moral disagreement equals hate, do we morally disagree with hate, or not? If we do, then we are mired in a moral quandary whereby we must engage in hate, even as we condemn hate. If we do not, then what, precisely, is the problem with hate?

But something else has me thinking. How would I feel about a guy who had a really popular show who said that Jesus Christ was a horrible person, or who said something totally reprehensible? I wouldn’t like it at all, and depending on certain factors, I may want the show cancelled(!). What is the difference, if any?

Whether we want the hypothetical show cancelled or not, the frame of the debate should be around homosexual behavior and if that is morally permissible or morally prohibited. I think we can appeal to the Bible (Romans 1), even if someone does not accept it. But further, we can also appeal to moral tradition, moral intuition, etc. Some of these can be used jointly in a case of the moral prohibition against homosexual behavior. However, fundamentally, the issue is whether or not the biblical Christian worldview is true. Christians who hold to the Bible should seek to establish that, otherwise people will not follow our arguments.

Finally, I caution those who want to do boycotts against boycotts in general. They usually do not work. I’ve seen suggestions that A&E sponsors should be boycotted; I’m not sure that will be helpful. The one possibility: not watching A&E anymore. I’m not calling for such a boycott, but if you engage in any, do not do so out of a power move. Do so on moral grounds.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christian Philosopher vs. Philosopher Who is Christian

I have been thinking lately about what it means to be a Christian philosopher vs. what it means to be a philosopher who is a Christian. The latter means to engage in the issues of philosophy, specifically one’s area of specialization (and areas of interest/competence), in a purely (or mostly) secular way. This is not always bad. It just means that one will not seek to prove God by way of reinforced presuppositions. It can mean that one finds plenty of arguments for God persuasive, even from these “unbiased” points. The former, however, means the communication of all of life from the Christian worldview.

This being a Christian philosopher is the only thing I can do. I do not begrudge those who would try to divest themselves of their Christianity as the driving force of their particular discipline[1] or who try just to be philosophers who happen to be Christian. I simply cannot help but to view Christian philosophy as the spiritual activity that it is. It helps believers in strengthening their faith in God. It grows believers in support of biblical doctrine and sound theology. Finally, it can be used in an apologetic toward unbelievers in order to evangelize them.

In short, Christian philosophy seeks to bring glory and honor to God by connecting all of life and creation to its ultimate foundation—the Creator. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

[1] By this I do not mean to say that philosophers who are Christian deny their Christianity, or repudiate their faith, or whatnot.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What is the Reason You Believe?

“The argument is that, if your belief depends only on geography and family history, then it has no more chances of being true than the god of the muslim guy, or the hindu guy, or the christian guy who lives right across the border.”

         I would like to analyze this statement, and see if it comports with reality. First, we have to ask what is meant by “depends.” I think that perhaps the most charitable meaning we can give this is to say it is being used as “reason.” So, the claim can be interpreted to mean, “If the only reason you have for your belief is geography and family history. . . .” But then “reason” becomes ambiguous, for surely we cannot mean reason as in “rational justification.” This is because most people don’t formulate an argument to the effect of, “I have my geographical and familial situation such that I am pre-disposed to believe in Christianity, therefore, I believe Christianity.” Instead, “reason” tends to mean “explanation” in these cases. So, the claim can be clearly reformulated to read: “If the only explanation of your belief is geographical and familial history. . . .” If this is not a correct understanding of what is being said by this part of the statement above, I welcome a correction. I believe that alternative understandings of this part of the claim will be shown either to be completely or usually false, so that the claim will only affect a minimal amount of Christians (if any). This is why I felt it charitable to read it in the stronger way.

            “Then it has no more chances of being true. . . .” In interpreting this part of the claim, we must be careful. Chance is not ontological; it is epistemological. Since someone who has an explanation for their belief in Christianity other than the above (like Christians in Muslim contexts, or ones who come from atheistic backgrounds, etc.) will have many things open to their epistemology, we should locate these epistemological challenges to be relevant to those whom the first part of the statement addressed. If we do not, then the second part becomes patently false (at least, it would be a non-sequitur). This part of the claim states that for those whose only explanation for their belief is geographical and familial concerns, they do not have any more justification for holding their belief as true over and against other beliefs contrary to their religious beliefs.

            So, the entire statement would read (in condensed form): “If the only explanation of your belief is geographical and familial history, then it has no more chances of being true over and against other religions, and one is not justified in holding his religious belief.” So is this true? Not at all. For explanations don’t preclude there being rational reasons to believe! So suppose there is the Christian whose only explanation for belief is that he was born in a Christian country to a Christian family.[1] Why can he not have arguments for Christian belief? One can argue that these arguments or reasons are all false or unjustifiable, but it will have to be because the skeptic has examined all of these reasons and concluded they are false, which is a completely different project than the one outlined before. It also doesn’t help to say that many people don’t have these reasons, since many do, and hence it will not work as a principle. It also won’t work to go back to “reason” as rational instead of explanatory. This is because a relative very few take their family history and geography to be rational arguments supporting their belief (much less do they make it the only such argumentative basis). Even if we find some who do, most do not (this is true even if they have no such arguments: most do not retreat to arguing from family history). So perhaps the skeptic can make a synthesis: “If the only explanation of your belief is geographical and familial history, and you have no rational justification (whether by lack or by defeat) for your belief, then it has no more chances of being true over and against other religions, and one is not justified in holding his religious belief.”

            Is this modified statement, which affects only those who, a) have no rational arguments or evidence to support their beliefs, or b) those whose every argument and line of evidence has been at least significantly undercut so as not to count as justification, actually true? I think not. This is going to be the point of Alvin Plantinga’s reformed epistemology. Basically, the idea is that even if “regular people” don’t have any rational arguments to support their belief that God exists, they can still be justified in doing so. How? Well, if God exists, it is reasonable to think he accounts for belief in God by placing a sense of the divine into every man. Indeed, something very much like this is the testimony of Scripture (cf. Romans 1).

            “Wait a minute!” you exclaim. “You can’t just suppose God exists to show that they are rational!” I’m not quite supposing God exists. What I (and Plantinga) am doing is attempting to show that theists are rationally justified, in the absence of defeaters, in believing God exists. If belief in God is a properly basic belief, which I think it is, then the “man on the street” is perfectly justified in holding them.

            Well, why can’t the adherents of other religions say the same thing? Well, they certainly can! However, we must keep two things in mind. First, there is a major difference between knowing something is true and showing something is true. You don’t have to do the latter in order to enjoy the former. Suppose you believe 2+2=4, and you encounter a person who insists, via a complicated and complex formula and set of reasoning, that 2+2=941.6, on one day per millennium. As it so happens, you need not refute this person in order to know that 2+2=4, and therefore, whatever is contrary to it is false. Now, you would certainly need to interact with that man if you wanted to show that his view was false. So you do not need to refute every other religion before saying you know your religious beliefs are true. Second, properly basic beliefs are subject to defeaters. This is how you can show someone their beliefs are false (or, conversely, be shown that your beliefs are false).

            In either case, it seems this claim will not work against anyone—unless God does not exist. That may be so (though I don’t think it’s even possibly so, but that’s another argument), but it will be those considerations that do the work. Even then, since epistemology is person relative, if the subject does not know those defeaters, then she can still be rationally justified in holding her religious beliefs (until such time as she has a defeater, of course).

[1] It’s seriously doubtful whether this is ever the only explanation in that this explanation is neither necessary nor sufficient for Christian belief. It’s not a necessary condition in that someone can become a Christian without ever hearing about a “Christian nation” or being in a “Christian family.” It’s also not sufficient in that there are individuals for whom conversion never takes place, despite being born into a Christian family and in a Christian nation.

Wes Morriston's Dilemma against God as the Objective Source of Morality

It has been brought to my attention that Wes Morriston (and others) have objected to the moral argument (or, at least, God’s being the ground for objective moral values) by means of the following argument: if God’s nature is goodness, then the properties that make up his nature are good. If this collection of properties is good, we can then ask: is God good because he has these properties, or are the properties good because he has them? If God is good because he has these properties, then there is some standard of goodness outside of God. If the properties are good because God has them, then it seems objective morality loses its objective meaning. What is the answer here?

First, and most importantly, I think Morriston’s dilemma just assumes that God’s nature is not identical to the good. The dilemma implicitly asks about the explanation for God’s nature; the only explanation of God’s nature is that it is necessary.[1] To those who are unfamiliar with modalities, this may seem like a very unsatisfactory answer. However, that’s what being necessary sometimes entails (consider the man who insists there must be some other answer for why 2+2=4 other than that it’s a necessary truth: he would be misguided). But let us return to the issue at hand. If God is identical with the good, then to ask this question just assumes the falsehood of the theist’s claim. God is not some abstract collection of properties, but rather a concrete entity whose very being is good. It is its own standard, for it is necessary.

Second, I’m not even convinced this is a true dilemma. The way I would refute the dilemma in the first note above would be to insist that it is predicated on a false premise (kind of like asking “either you’ve told your parents you’re gay or you haven’t”; it appears as a solid dilemma, but it assumes things that may not be true). However, it is not yet clear to me that there is no third option. Why can we not say, for instance, that another option is, “God has these properties because he is good”? In order to know whether or not this is a good response, we ought to list all three options, and see if they differ from one another.

1.     God is good because he has these properties.
2.     These properties are good because God has them.
3.     God has these properties because he is good.

Since (1-2) are Morriston’s (as far as I know), in the interests of charity, we ought to infuse them with the same meanings he did. That means (1) means that we find God is good because his properties conform to some independent standard of objective morality. This also means (2) entails that the properties of God’s nature are good because he wills them to be so (or infuses these moral properties with objective meaning that they lacked, which destroys objective morality). But it’s not clear (3) means or entails either of those things. (3) just means that these properties (like being loving, being just, etc.) are entailments of what it means to be goodness itself.

Now one may try to complain that (3) entails an inability to understand what it means to be good. I’d like to point out that’s not a complaint that has anything to do with the dilemma, or even moral ontology. Moreover, this type of objection won’t work even against moral epistemology. This is because one cannot search for explanatory grounds beyond the foundation or ultimate explanation of some thing. It will lead to a circular definition in literally every case. This is true even of “completely secular”[2] truths and things. Try the laws of logic, the problem of induction, the nature of free will, literally anything. Once you have reached its ultimate explanation, by definition there are no further explanations. So, what happens when one queries as to the explanation of the ultimate explanation for a thing? One can only get the response that the explanation is ultimate, so that there is no explanation for the ultimate explanation’s explaining what it does explain! To complain that it is circular and therefore unjustified is silly.

I know what you’re thinking. So, your defense is that it is circular? Not quite. My defense is that God is the ultimate explanation of morality, and that the so-called dilemma assumes that he is not. Now we must keep track of the dialectic. The one who posits the dilemma is using an internal critique against Christianity (I cannot stress this enough). This means someone like Morriston is saying, “All right. Let’s assume God’s nature is identical to the good. Here is what follows . . . .” I then provide the answers I have provided above, including that there is nothing untoward about ultimate explanations “acting” this way. Notice the response that, “Well you need to give us some non-circular reason to believe that God is identical to the good,” is completely an external critique, and thus irrelevant to our present discussion. To be sure, we will want to show the skeptic why we think God is the foundation of objective moral values, but that is a separate discussion. It is one in which I will not engage until the skeptic involved in this type of a conversation acknowledges the point that these dilemmas have no force as an internal argument.

What if they say that this response of moral definition is an external critique? Then I would respond that it therefore has nothing to do with the dilemma above, and therefore, it can be safely ignored until such time as the skeptic grants that the dilemma is false. But once we reached that point, the burden is then on the skeptic to show that, as a matter of fact, God is not the objective standard of morality (and we’ve already seen the complaint of circularity against ultimate explanations isn’t very helpful or powerful).

But back to the main issue. Is there anything that can be done to salvage Morriston’s dilemma? It seems there may be. Maybe one could insist that (2) intends that God’s nature entails these specific properties, and so (3) is just another way of stating (2), and the dilemma is not false after all. But notice what happens then: it becomes quite unclear that the consequence that supposedly follows from (2) really follows at all! After all, if God’s nature is good and so entails these properties (like being loving), it is difficult to see how these objective moral values are no longer objective. So there it is. This dilemma can be safely retired.

[1] This is why I say this objection cannot be pressed without implicitly endorsing some modified version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: it assumes there is some explanation for God’s nature being the way it is. The explanation finds itself in the necessity of God’s own nature.

[2] If God exists, there are no such entities as “purely secular” things or concepts. So I’m just using common terminology.