Understanding the Incarnation: An Obligation to Share in Human Suffering

“If God wanted to forgive our sins,” complains Dawkins in The God Delusion, “why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed?” I will confess that, before I became a Christian around three years ago, I shared Dawkins’ perplexity. In fact, the Christian claim that, “Jesus died for our sins,” (meaning that before God could forgive us for wronging him he needed to become a man so we could murder him) was finally as strange as the claim that, “Honi the Circle-Drawer philandered for our monogamy.” If it was not utterly nonsensical then it was so impenetrably obscure that only a religious mystic could fully understand it—and even then he would then be unable to explain it to others. [1]

The Oxford professor of philosophy, Richard Swinburne, would not share this view. In The Resurrection of God Incarnate, he argues that there are good reasons for thinking that, if there is a God, he would become incarnate in order to live a perfect life filled with great suffering that ends in a miracle. In other words, not only is the crucifixion of God Incarnate not incongruous; it is precisely the sort of thing we would expect God to do if God exists.

Swinburne begins his argument with two preliminary axioms. The first is that if God exists God is by nature morally perfect—that is the sort of being whose existence we are postulating. The second is that human sin and suffering is a necessary feature of the universe God has created. Swinburne argues that such suffering is something which God (if God exists) has good reason to allow but is also something to which God (being morally perfect) is also likely to respond in a dramatic way.

In this first post it will be my concern to argue for the necessity of human sin and suffering and then discuss the first of three a priori reasons for thinking that God would become incarnate in response to it. The two remaining reasons that make up the rest of Swinburne’s argument will be presented in subsequent posts.

The Sin and Suffering of Man

Suffering is an unpreventable feature of any world in which virtue and moral self-determination are widely attainable for finite agents. This was a point I discussed in a previous post.  Again, briefly: Free will ensures that we have a choice between doing good and doing evil while humans are so made that when we do good it becomes easier to do good again at the next opportunity and when we do evil it becomes easier to do evil again at the next opportunity. [2] In this way, we gradually strengthen or weaken desires of different kinds and so form a moral character.

Without free will none of this would be possible. And while God is omnipotent, his omnipotence needs to be understood in a way that allows for the constraints of logical possibility. It is logically impossible for God to create agents with free will and ensure that they do no evil. And so human suffering is a potential feature of any world in which virtue is widely attainable.

It is only because God wants us to freely become good people that he permits temporary moral evil and suffering. But it needs to be noted that it is not free will alone, but free will and moral evil together, that provide an opportunity to manifest most virtues. In other words, only if someone eventually exercises their free will to assault or abuse you can I exercise mine to show you empathy; only if you are robbed can I make personal sacrifices to provide for you. The question arises whether moral evil alone would afford adequate opportunities for everyone to form a virtuous moral character. Swinburne suggests that it would not. A world in which opportunities to obtain virtue are universally available must therefore contain natural evil.

Consider a world without disaster, disease and decrepitude; a world in which the only cause of injury and death is, respectively, assault and murder. It is a mathematical certainty that such a world would provide far, far fewer opportunities for compassion, self-sacrifice, courage, forbearance, and so forth, and highly probable that some of us would have no such opportunities at all. Pleasure and comfort are good and our world, of course, includes both. But a life that offered nothing else would make us complacent, hedonistic, idle, selfish and shallow.

The initial conditions of the argument are therefore as follows: Human beings are misusing their free will to do evil. As a result, many individuals and societies are developing a bad moral character. This fact, together with the natural evil necessary to ensure that opportunities to obtain virtue are universally available, causes human suffering that is often widespread and profound. God, meanwhile, is morally perfect. How is he likely to respond? Swinburne argues that God will likely respond by becoming incarnate. Let us now consider the first of the three arguments he gives.

To Fulfil an Obligation to Share in Human Suffering

Parents often subject their children to suffering for the sake of some greater good. Mrs Bell, for instance, may put her overweight daughter on a stringent diet. Mr Wild may ask his son to attend a “difficult” neighbourhood school for the sake of good community relations. Under such circumstances, it is good but not obligatory for the parent to show solidarity with their child by taking a share in the suffering that has been imposed. Thus Mrs Bell may decide to join her daughter in eating a green salad for dinner even though Mrs Bell herself is not overweight. And likewise Mr Wild may present himself at the “difficult” neighbourhood school to enrol in the parent-teacher association or offer to coach the soccer team.

In both examples the suffering imposed is mild. But Swinburne suggests that when the suffering imposed reaches a certain level of intensity the good of sharing in that suffering for the one who imposes it rises to an obligation. In this connection he offers the following example.

Suppose, firstly, that England has been unjustly attacked and the government has conscripted all men between 18 and 30 to defend it; suppose, secondly, that a parent may “veto” the conscription of their son if he is under 21; suppose, thirdly, that older men under 50 may volunteer. Most parents with teenage sons veto the conscription but Swinburne, in view of the gravity of the situation, refuses to do so: He insists that his 19 year old son enlist. Suppose finally that Swinburne is 45 and so himself eligible but under no obligation to serve. “Since I am forcing my son to endure the hardship and danger of military service,” concludes Swinburne, “I have a moral obligation to him to volunteer myself.” And of course in circumstances of this kind the sharing could not be incognito. “The parent needs not merely to share the child’s suffering but to show him that he is doing so.”

The relevance of all this to the doctrine of the Incarnation can be spelled out as follows: Given the amount of pain and suffering which God, though for a good purpose, permits us to endure it is very plausible to suppose that he incurs a moral obligation upon himself to share in that suffering; and given that God, being perfectly good, always performs the morally best available action, it is very plausible to suppose that he would discharge that obligation. This could be achieved by means of an incarnation; that is, by becoming human and, “living a life containing much suffering and ending with the great crisis which all humans have to face: the crisis of death.” And one way to ensure that he has shared in the very worst suffering humans must endure is to live a life that ends in a brutal and unjustly imposed execution.

A moment ago it was noted that the obligation to share in the suffering one imposes on another can not be discharged in secret. Thus an incarnation would not fulfil its purpose unless the knowledge that it had occurred were made widely available to the future human race. And since the human life of God Incarnate would be of limited duration he must also found an institution—such as the Christian Church—to proclaim his message.

Swinburne therefore argues that the terrible suffering of Jesus, including his betrayal and his brutal and unjustly imposed execution, is not incongruous on the assumption that Jesus was God Incarnate; rather, it is precisely the sort of thing we might expect of God given his moral perfection and the great human suffering which, though for good reason, he allows.

The next post in this series will discuss the second of three a priori reasons for thinking that God would become Incarnate: To provide a means of making atonement.

—————————————————

[1] Here one thinks of Buddha’s famous Flower Sermon. Zen Buddhism is said to have begun when Buddha held up a white lotus flower to his followers and said—absolutely nothing. No one understood the meaning of this, except for one disciple, who smiled subtly and with that subtle smile Zen Buddhism was born.

[2] As Emerson put it, “Sew a thought, reap an action; sew an action, reap a habit; sew a habit, reap a character; sew a character, reap an eternal destiny.”

The Possibility of Miracles

One of the skeptic’s most familiar complaints about Christianity is that it asks us to believe in a lot of mythological nonsense that has been scientifically falsified—such as parting seas and virgin births and men who walk on water. It is certainly true that the Bible contains accounts of miracles. And it true that a Christian is committed to taking at least some of these literally. Indeed, Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the claim that Jesus rose miraculously from the dead—a point realised by the Apostles themselves.1 But can the skeptic justify his claim that it is absurd and irrational to even entertain a belief in miracles? In this post it shall be my concern to show that the answer to this question is: No.

Let us begin by defining a miracle. A miracle is a claimed event which, if it occurred, would constitute a violation of the laws nature. By this definition it is not even certain that all of the extraordinary claims in the New Testament are miracles. In Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, for example, the American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga includes a Quantum Mechanical account of the transformation of water into wine—sportingly provided by the atheist physicist Bradley Monton. GRW, for what it is worth, refers to the Ghirard-Rimini-Weber approach—one of a set of collapse theories in quantum mechanics. Morton says,

The wave function for each particle is spread throughout an unbounded region of the universe at every time except perhaps momentary instants of time. This means that for each particle there is at most a finite region where it couldn’t be localised by a GRW hit. Some, probably even most, particles could be localised anywhere. So for changing water into wine, it’s not a big deal—you’ve got a bunch of individual particles that are composing the water, and they can all have GRW hits such that their positions are redistributed to the locations that would be appropriate for them to compose wine.

Monton’s final assessment is that, “all of the other miracles are unproblematically compatible with quantum mechanics.”

Morton helps to show that even the most extraordinary claims in the New Testament are not in principle beyond the purview of science but such speculations are, in the end, beside the point. And this is because the Christian claim is not that the miracles recorded in the New Testament are Quantum anomalies—even ones orchestrated by Jesus. Christians claim that the miracles of Jesus, and in particular the Resurrection of Jesus, did violate the laws of nature. This is the precisely the point of the miracle: Since violating laws of nature is something which only God can do, the Resurrection constitutes a divine signature on the life and teachings of Jesus.

I will now briefly discuss three standard objections to the belief in miracles and show that each one is ultimately without warrant.

The Objection from Scientism

The first objection holds that the scientific method is the only valid source of true beliefs about the world. Its proponent claims: If something cannot be empirically measured and quantified, or proven by means of a repeatable experiment, then we cannot hold a justified belief in it. And since miracles, by definition, lie beyond the scope of the scientific method (i.e., are unquantifiable, untestable, etc.) we cannot hold a justified belief in miracles.

The problem with this view, dubbed “scientism” by its critics, is that it is self-referentially incoherent. Consider: The claim that the scientific method is the only valid source of true beliefs about the world is a metascientific claim—a belief about the world that cannot itself be empirically measured and quantified, or proven by means of a repeatable experiment. Perhaps one could attempt to demonstrate the validity of scientism with a philosophical proof. But since any such proof would both advocate the scientific method as the sole source of truth, and originate outside the scientific method, it would invalidate itself.

In recent times scientism has enjoyed an unselfconscious resurgence in the writing of the New Atheists but it can be traced back to a mid-twentieth century movement in Western philosophy called Logical Positivism. Logical Positivism held that the only meaningful statements were those capable of being verified through sense experience or (as in pure logic and mathematics) those that are true by tautology. All non-tautological claims were subject to the “verifiability criterion” championed by A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book, Language, Truth and Logic. The existence of God, interestingly, was not rejected outright; it was simply excluded from the conversation. Ayer said that it was just as absurd to be an atheist as to be a theist. The statements, “God exists” and “God does not exist” simply had no meaning.

By 1945, Logical Positivism had been abandoned by its own founders. The first problem with the verifiability criterion was that it forbade the metascientific precepts necessary to formulate a theoretical framework for scientific inquiry. The second problem was the fatal one already noted: The verifiability criterion is itself neither tautological nor verifiable. As the mathematician David Berlinski puts it, “All such arguments, when self-applied, self-destruct.”

The Objection from Hume

A second influential objection against the belief in miracles goes back to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume claimed that the inductive confirmation of natural law in everyday experience is so overwhelming that no eyewitness report of a violation of natural law could ever outweigh it. For instance: The fact that heavy objects are always and everywhere observed to fall to the Earth is overwhelming background evidence against a report that, say, a marble bust of Mozart had levitated into the air. Whether this miracle had really occurred or not, a rational person would be compelled to reject the report of its occurrence on the basis of his everyday experience of gravity.

Contemporary philosophers of religion identify two flaws in Hume’s argument, both of which are discussed by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne in his influential book The Existence of God. Swinburne first notes that, even granting Hume’s assumption that the only relevant background evidence is our experience of the laws of nature, there is no reason to suppose that this evidence always counts decisively against the report. “Maybe,” Swinburne writes, “so many careful witnesses report very clearly what happened that their evidence can outweigh the evidence from the normal operation of laws of nature.”

You might object that people lie, hallucinate and are easily deceived. But in support of his point that, very occasionally, we may be rationally compelled to accept evidence for a miraculous event from multiple, credible witnesses, Swinburne appeals to two fundamental principles of rationality: The Principle of Credulity and the Principle of Testimony. 

The Principle of Credulity states: If to a subject S it seems that x is present then, in the absence of special considerations, probably x is present. If Mr Green has the experience of it seeming to him that there is a German shepherd on his lawn then that is good evidence for his believing that there is a German shepherd on his lawn. “The principle of Credulity,” Swinburne asserts, “is a fundamental principle of rationality and unless we allow it to have considerable force, we quickly find ourselves in a skeptical bog in which we can hardly know anything.”

In ordinary experience we also use a wider principle: Other things being equal, we believe that what others tell us is probably true. “Most of our beliefs about the world,” observes Swinburne, “are based on what others claim to have perceived—beliefs about geography and history and science and everything else beyond immediate experience.” Swinburne argues that such beliefs are justified even when (as per usual) we do not personally vet witnesses for their reliability. Thus the Principle of Testimony: The experiences of others, in the absence of special considerations, are probably as they report them. In his book Swinburne enumerates and discusses various special considerations and shows that none of them can be universally applied to religious experience.2

Contra Hume: On these two principles of rationality detailed reports of a miracle from several credible witnesses may outweigh the inductive evidence of natural law from everyday experience—even without including the evidence of natural theology in our total background evidence.

“But Hume’s main mistake,” continues Swinburne, “was his assumption that in such cases our knowledge of what are the laws of nature is our only relevant background evidence.” Equally relevant to our assessment of a purported miracle is any background evidence for the existence of God.For if on the total background evidence it is plausible or even probable that there is a God, then it is plausible or even probable that there exists a being with the power to violate the laws of nature. Evidence that there is a God is evidence that laws of nature can be violated—which will have particular relevance in cases where the reported event is of a kind that God, if God exists, would have good reason to bring about.

What reasons might God have to cause an event that violates laws whose regular operation he usually ensures? Swinburne suggests that there are reasons of two kinds. The first is to answer human prayer. “A world in which everything occurred in accordance with natural laws,” he notes, “would not be a world in which God had any living interaction with human beings.” The second kind of reason why God might violate natural law is, “just occasionally to put his signature on the work or teaching of some prophet in order to show that that work or teaching was God’s work or teaching.”

Swinburne argues elsewhere that, on the assumption that God exists, an Incarnation authenticated by a divine miracle has a certain likelihood given the moral perfection of God and the obvious general fact of human sin and suffering.4 And when this consideration is combined with the evidence for the existence of God from natural theology, a multiply and independently attested miracle of the right kind under the right circumstances may outweigh the inductive evidence that, when natural laws operate in the usual way, such things do not occur. Hume’s attempt to show that a miracle is always unworthy of credit fails.

The Objection from the Laws of Conservation

The third and final objection to miracles is the claim that special divine action in the world would violate the laws of physics. Plantinga asks us to consider this example of a miracle: God creating an adult horse ex nihilo in the middle of Times Square. During such an event the laws of conservation of energy, momentum, and so forth, would all be violated. Physics, meanwhile, tells us that this is impossible. The objector concludes miracles are impossible.

However, the laws of conservation apply to systems that are causally closed—closed to causal influence from without. But as Plantinga reminds us it is no part of standard physics that the universe is causally closed and whether or not it is depends on whether or not God exists. For consider: If God does exist then there exists an omnipotent being who can act upon the universe from without. Evidence for the existence of God is therefore, equally, evidence against the causal closure of the universe. And likewise: any system in which a miracle occurs is, ipso facto, not constrained by the various conservation laws. One cannot reject a miracle on the unproven assumption that God does not exist and therefore the universe is causally closed; indeed, the reported miracle may be evidence against the assumption on the basis of which the skeptic is rejecting it.

We have seen that there is no indefeasible objection to the possibility of miracles and so no way for a skeptic to prevent at the outset a rational inquiry into their occurrence. Whether it is rational to believe in the foundational miracle of Christianity—the Resurrection of Jesus—cannot be settled a priori. It needs to be settled in the court of historical analysis.4

——————————————————–

[1] Paul writes, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” 

[2] See my summary of his argument here.

[3] See the Modal Cosmological Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, as well as the arguments from Cosmic Teleology, Biological Teleology, Consciousness, Adequation, Moral Experience, Desire and Religious Experience. All nine lines of evidence for the existence of God are also lines of evidence for the possibility of a being who can violate the laws of nature and so for the possibility of miracles. They must therefore be included in our total background evidence for a purported miracle. 

[4] There is no space to detail the argument here. See his book The Resurrection of God Incarnate. I summarise the relevant part of that book here.

[5] See the historical argument for The Resurrection of Jesus.

If God Commands Something Evil, Does That Make it Right?

Many Christians believe that we have a moral obligation to obey what God commands. Since God commands us not to murder or commit adultery (Exodus 20:13-14), we are obligated not to do those things. Since God commands us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Matt 22:39), we have a duty to do just that. In fact, many Christian theologians and philosophers take this notion a step further, arguing that our moral duties are actually rooted in God’s commands. On this view, if God commands something, then we have a moral duty to follow that command. On the other hand, if God didn’t command anything, then we wouldn’t have any moral obligations or duties. This view, called ‘divine command theory’ (or DCT for short), is appealing to Christian scholars and laypeople alike since it grounds moral duties and obligations in God. In addition, it squares well with what we read in scripture.

A moment’s reflection, however, reveals an obvious objection to this view. If God commanded someone to torture a child, would torturing the child be the right thing to do? If our moral duties are determined by what God commands us to do, then it follows that if God commanded us to do something wicked like torture a child, it would be our moral duty to torture that child. We might spell out the objection like this:

(1) Our moral duties are determined by what God commands us to do.

(2) God can command us to torture children.

(3) Therefore, if God commanded us to torture children, we would have a moral duty to torture children.

Plainly the idea of having a moral obligation to torture children conflicts with our moral intuitions. It seems absurd, or at least strange, that a command from God could transform a wicked and evil action into a morally obligatory one. One might conclude, then, that since grounding moral duties in God’s commands leads to such absurdities, they are likely not the foundation for our moral duties and obligations. As sceptics argue, there must be some other way to ground moral duties.     

However, philosopher Matthew Flannagan thinks that this conclusion is unwarranted[i]. According to Flannagan, the defender of divine command theory has reason to deny premise (2). This is because when Christians refer to ‘God’, they are referring to a being who is holy, just, righteous, loving, etc. As such, what premise (2) really states is that a holy, just, righteous, and loving being can command us to torture children. However, assuming that torturing children is essentially unholy, unjust, unrighteous, and unloving, it is not at all clear that God can issue such a command. If commanding unjust actions makes the commander unjust, then it follows that if God (a perfectly just and righteous being) issues such a command then he is both just and unjust, both righteous and unrighteous—which is a contradiction. Therefore, Flannagan argues, premise (2) is false.

In fact, as Flannagan points out, in order for the objection to succeed, one must implicitly assume that no just, righteous, loving person would command wicked and evil acts. He states “the very reason… sceptics cite this objection is they think… ‘no informed, morally sensible person would ever endorse this [kind of behaviour]’”[ii]. In other words, the notion of having a moral duty to torture children conflicts with our moral intuitions and simply isn’t the type of thing a reasonable, just, loving person could command. But, given that God is a reasonable, just, and loving person, he could not issue such a command. Therefore, premise (2) is false.

With this in mind, it seems that divine command theory is a tenable view for Christians to hold.  In answer to the question, then: God cannot command wicked acts, as the question assumes, and therefore no dilemma arises.


 

Endnotes:

[i] [BiolaUniversity]. (2013, Sep 14). Matthew Flannagan: Can God Command Evil? The Problem of Apparently Immoral Commands. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gjf4AfuilWk&t=253s

[ii] ibid

When in Doubt

It is part of human nature to doubt. In a world in which the prominent worldviews are contrary to Christianity, it is no surprise that many followers of Christ have doubts about their faith. I know from personal experience that doubts can often seem overwhelming, and that it is extraordinarily easy to blow them out of proportion. What should simply prompt reflection and consideration instead causes one to become anxious and defensive both internally—emotionally and intellectually—as well as externally—in one’s interactions with others. In such cases, there are two missteps that believers should beware of. Firstly, we can mistakenly perceive an objection as undermining a particular Christian belief, when in fact that belief has little or nothing to do with the objection. Secondly, we can assign far more importance to a given belief than it truly has. As a result of these two missteps, doubts and objections can appear to have implications that they do not necessarily have.  

As an example of the first misstep, take the so-called slaughter of the Canaanites. Critics often argue that God’s command to the Israelites to kill the Canaanites[i] was immoral, and therefore the God of the Bible cannot be good. Obviously, this conclusion is troubling for all who believe that God is essentially good. Must we accept it, or is there an alternative? One option would be to repudiate the argument. This, in my opinion, has been successfully done by a number of apologists[ii]. Another alternative would be to grant the argument, but deny the conclusion. Let’s see what happens if we explore this route.

Suppose that God’s command to kill the Canaanites was immoral, and that an essentially good God could not have issued such a command. Rather than inferring that God is not good, the Christian could instead conclude that the Israelites were mistaken in thinking that God had issued such a command. If we draw this conclusion, then the objection does not undermine God’s goodness, but rather biblical inerrancy, since the command is recorded in scripture. Clearly this is still a troubling conclusion for most believers. Nonetheless, it serves as an example of the first misstep that doubting Christians can fall into; namely, perceiving an objection as undermining a particular Christian belief (e.g. God’s goodness) when it actually does not necessarily do so.

This brings us to the second misstep: assigning more importance to a belief than it warrants. In the Christian worldview, some beliefs are more central—more important—than others. For example, the belief that God exists is vital, while beliefs regarding the rapture and tribulation are far less significant. Philosopher William Lane Craig offers a helpful analogy that emphasises this point. He states:

Our system of beliefs as Christians can be compared to a spider’s web which radiates out from a central point. These strands of the web represent different doctrines or affirmations that we as Christians believe. Some of these doctrines are more central to the web of belief. If one of these doctrines were plucked out, the reverberations would be felt throughout the entire web and the web might even collapse. But if one of these peripheral strands were to be removed, there would be little reverberation in one’s system of beliefs.[iii] 

If we picture Christian beliefs like a web, then the existence of God would be a core strand, along with the deity of Christ and his bodily resurrection. If these claims turned out to be false, then so would Christianity.

Returning to our earlier example, then, which belief is more central to the Christian faith—belief in God’s goodness, or in scripture’s inerrancy? Although giving up either would send colossal tremors through one’s web of beliefs, I believe that abandoning the former would do more damage than the latter. That is to say, belief in God’s goodness is more central to Christianity than belief in biblical inerrancy. The danger is that, in constructing our web of beliefs, one might place more importance on a doctrine than it warrants. Then, when that doctrine is challenged, the accompanying doubts appear to strike far closer to the heart of the Christian faith than they should. The moral of the story is that, when in doubt, we should think carefully about what belief an objection undermines, and make sure that we place that belief in its appropriate place in our ‘web of beliefs’; neither attributing more significance to it than is warranted, nor underestimating its importance.


Endnotes:

[i] See Deuteronomy 7:2; 20:16-18.

[ii] For some responses to the so-called slaughter of the Canaanites, click here and here.

[iii] https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-doctrine-of-revelation/doctrine-of-revelation-part-7/

What Is Wrong With Watching Pornography?

Has pornography really become morally and socially acceptable? If a fluff piece reposted on the Herald website is any indication, the answer is: Yes, it has, and for your information, it is now opposition to pornography that is morally and socially abnormal.

The article in question informs us that an American woman by the name of Claire Dolton was recently pilloried online after jilting her fiancé for the stupidest of reasons. “And the reason?” asks lifestyle reporter Vanessa Brown and then answers her own question: “Well, the guy liked to watch porn—gasp!”

Consider that sarcastic, editorialising gasp. It leaves the reader in no doubt of Venessa’s opinion. Claire Dolton is a pearl-clutching prude and her decision to break up with her fiancé over pornography is absurd. If pornography is to be approached with any moral reservation at all (and it is not clear from Vanessa’s article that it should) then, presumably, it is on a level with double-parking and the late return of library books: A naughty foible unworthy of serious concern.

If it is absurd to be solemnly opposed to masturbation and pornography then the Christian Church has been absurd for twenty centuries. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that, “pornography does grave injury to the dignity of participants,” and lists masturbation as a mortal sin—where “mortal” means serious enough to destroy one’s relationship with God. Luther and Calvin believed likewise as is clear from their voluminous writings. And there is no possible reading of Matthew 5:27-28 (in which men are forbidden to, “gaze at a woman to lust after her,”) that does not proscribe pornography for any man who wishes to obey the teachings of Jesus. [1]

In the digital age, meanwhile, pornography has never been more abundant, more accessible and more accepted. [2] Clearly, then, there is a chasm between what the Church teaches and what society practices. In what follows it will be my concern to show that Christian teaching on this issue is morally coherent. My argument will be that the Church upholds and promotes an ideal of human sexuality that is most conducive to the production of virtue and happiness while forms of human sexuality that deviate from this ideal, and in this instance pornography and masturbation, are productive of vice and therefore morally wrong.

It Is Disordered

Let me begin with a modest claim about masturbation and pornography: It is highly doubtful that a good counterargument can be mounted against the view that it is disordered—where “disordered” is understood to mean, “contrary to the normal and healthy functioning or purpose of something”—in this case, human sexuality.

Clearly enough, a boy who discovers that he enjoys rubbing his genitals has not discovered the unitive and procreative ends towards which the motivating urge is directed. Who can deny that he still has an important further fact to learn about sex? Or, if the masturbator is an adult man, who can deny that what is missing from the room when he masturbates is as critical to the completion and fulfilment of human sexuality as is an opponent to a solitary man on a tennis court who wishes to play a game of tennis?

The theologian Peter Damian has even suggested that masturbation is a form of low-grade homosexuality—a point which entails masturbation is disordered ipso facto for heterosexual men whose sexual desires are directed at the female sex. [3] I will admit that I initially laughed at Damian’s suggestion—but it is nevertheless reasonable on reflection. For consider what is happening when a man masturbates: In a room in which a woman is nowhere to be found, a male hand is bringing a penis to orgasm—so be it that the hand and penis belong to the same man. In The Porn Trap, Wendy and Larry Maltz make the further point that, for this very reason, heterosexual boys have always tried to use pornography to “heterosexualize” masturbation,

Rather than focus on the fact that they are stimulating male genitals, they can focus on the reassuring presence of a female.

The obvious qualification that no female is actually present gives the lie to the attempted deception: For in the final analysis masturbating to heterosexual pornography is no more a form of “heterosexual sex” than a shoe is “food” if while eating it I look at pictures of bread.

Here an objector may simply allow that pornography and masturbation are disordered and ask: Is what is disordered necessarily wrong? Thomists think the answer to this question is Yes and their position, called Natural Law Morality, is not as easy to refute as you might think. But showing that masturbating to pornography is wrong does not depend on a defence of Natural Law Morality. There are far less scholastic and more obvious objections at hand.

It Is Paradigmatically Selfish

That the act of sexually pleasuring yourself is paradigmatically selfish is, I hope, fairly obvious. John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body, argues that, “pornography and masturbation represent the destruction of the symbolic and nuptial meaning of the human body.” For, as he says, “God gives all men and women erotic energy,” that, “forms part of that attraction between men and women.” That, of itself, is a profound good. But it follows that,

Sexual energy needs to find its outlet in love, not lust: In masturbation that erotic energy is turned in on oneself. Masturbation, therefore, is a symbol not of love but of loneliness.

Here an atheist reader will object that I have smuggled God into my argument. But the point is scarcely affected by the substitution of “Nature” for God as the origin human erotic energy. It is an obvious general truth that when the pleasure of sex is shared it opens one up to erotic and romantic affection and, ultimately, family love. Thomas Nagel, himself an atheist, sees this reciprocity as being what is essential to human sexuality.

Nagel proposes that sexual interactions in which each person responds with sexual arousal to noticing the sexual arousal of the other person exhibit the psychology that is natural to human sexuality. In such an encounter, each person becomes aware of himself or herself and the other person as both the subject and the object of their joint sexual experiences. Perverted sexual encounters or events would be those in which this mutual recognition of arousal is absent. [4]

On Nagel’s criterion viewing and masturbating to pornography would qualify as, “perverted sexual events” since there is not and cannot be a mutual recognition of arousal between two conscious selves.

It Therefore Impedes Virtue

Consider, by contrast, a man in a loving and monogamous marriage who refrains from pornography and masturbation. Such a man constrains his sexual activity to one woman with whom he is in love. He thereby enjoys the imposition of what is probably one of the few constraints upon the male libido that is stronger than the male libido—love itself. In other words, a loving husband who enjoys sexual release with the woman he loves and in no other way quickly discovers that in the interests of cherishing and respecting her he will frequently need to overcome and set aside his carnal urges—to give up on the idea of fulfilling some erotic fantasy that his wife finds embarrassing, for example; or to give up on the idea of having sex altogether in order to nurse his wife because she feels unwell. In this way, over time, and by force of habit, his love and respect for the other must operate against and surpass his strongest instinct for pleasure. And as Plato said, “A man becomes brave by acting bravely.” He means that we shape our moral character over time by our moral choices. The implications of this should be obvious

You might object here that a loving husband who does not so constrain himself does all these things too only he also masturbates to pornography in private from time to time—perhaps the better to control his carnal urges. But this objection entirely misses the point. For the man who has an orgasm whenever he wants and with whatever fantasy or pornographic aid he wants does not enjoy any inter-personal constraint upon his sexual release. C. S. Lewis understood this well when he wrote,

The real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete and correct his own personality in that of another and turns it back; sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides … For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover; no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity.

And It Promotes Vice

Much of what I have said so far could be applied to masturbation alone. But masturbation is almost always coupled with pornography abuse—and this is much graver. Lewis himself wrote well before the spread of online pornography. But his warning has only become more relevant and more urgent.

It is logical: You cannot love, respect and will the good of another human being and simultaneously find pleasure in watching them do something harmful or have something harmful done to them. The question arises: Is choosing to become a pornographic actress a good thing for a woman to do?

The question can be brought home by imagining that your mother, sister, daughter or wife is the woman in question. Sexual intercourse has the potential to be the most wonderful experience of human life—from its romantic and unitive force in a loving relationship to its production of children and so of family love. Contrast this with the life of a pornographic actress for whom sex and love are alienated so that her body can be objectified for profit.

If you cannot with perfect equanimity entertain the prospect of one of your female loved ones becoming a pornographic actress then you are morally compromising yourself every time you watch and masturbate to pornography. For to enjoy pornography and masturbation one has to follow the opposite moral path of the man who constrains his sexual activity to one woman with whom he is in love; namely, he has to allow his sexual desires to eclipse his love and respect for the other; he has to view woman and girls with limited financial and emotional agency as objects worthy to be used and misused for the sake of his own sexual enjoyment. And to do so—and to make a habit of doing so—is, Plato reminds us, simply to become a perverse, selfish, callous and unloving person.

This argument holds with respect to any form of pornography whatever; but it holds a fortiori with respect to the sort of pornography that has become almost normative online in recent times. There are various studies that can now be found on the prevalence and frequency of verbal and physical aggression towards woman in pornographic videos today. A fairly typical example reviews 304 popular videos and reports that,

88% of scenes contained physical aggressive behavior, such as choking or hitting, and 49% contained verbal aggression, mostly name calling. Almost all (94%) of aggressive behavior was directed towards women and elicited a positive or neutral response.

The Herald itself should know better. A month before it posted the above article, it ran a story on an online discussion among pornographic actresses in which it was revealed that, “rape, abuse and exploitation are shockingly common.” And when it is remembered that viewing pornography online produces ad revenue for those that promulgate it, it is not an exaggeration to say that men who view pornography are helping to fund the rape, abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women and girls. In this light, Claire’s mortification at her fiancé’s enjoyment of pornography does not seem quite so absurd.

The coherence of Christian teaching on this subject is, I believe, a small item of further evidence for the truth of the Christian Faith.

—————————————————-

[1] In this article I address myself to the problem of heterosexual men viewing heterosexual porn with a focus on the exploitation of women. This is because it is primarily men that view porn and it is primarily woman who are exploited. However, the same arguments could with very little need of emendation account for viewers and actors of any gender and orientation.

[2] The Broadcasting Standards Authority would likely agree with Venessa Brown—having decided that a show in which headless human beings are selected worthy or unworthy of romance by an examination of their genitals was fit for prime time New Zealand television. You can read about their decision here.

[3] For the coherence of Christian teaching on homosexuality see Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy by Richard Swinburne, p.303-306.

[4] Quoted from this article on the Philosophy of Sexuality.

End of Life Choice Bill: A Response

Euthanasia is a weighty subject—a subject that cannot be broached without reflecting upon human suffering, harm, and death. Since the proposal of the End of Life Choice Bill (ELCB), euthanasia has been the subject of extensive public and private debate here in Aotearoa. For those unfamiliar with the bill, it proposes the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia for any person over the age of 18 who has a “grievous and irremediable medical condition”, who “experiences unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that he or she considers tolerable”, and who can “understand the nature and consequences of assisted dying”[i]. In December 2017 the bill passed its first reading, and the second reading will be held once the Justice Committee have finished receiving public submissions. In this post, I will argue that the ELCB is flawed in such a way that renders it unacceptable as public policy. Briefly, my argument is that the safeguards in the bill are unable to sufficiently minimise the risk of patient manipulation, and, since the government should not accept legislation for euthanasia that fails in this regard, the bill should not be accepted.


Safeguards

Section 8(h) states that attending physicians must do their best to ensure that patients’ requests for euthanasia are free from external pressure, and three primary safeguards are outlined[ii]. The physician must:

  • Talk to “other health practitioners who are in regular contact with the person”
  • Talk with “members of the person’s family approved by the person”
  • Fill out a form detailing the actions he or she took to ensure that these obligations were fulfilled.

My contention is that although these safeguards offer some protection against manipulation, they do not sufficiently minimise the risk. As an example, consider this situation:

A family stands to benefit from the death of a terminally-ill relative. As such, they manipulate their ill relative into requesting euthanasia, even though it is not a choice she wants to make. Nonetheless, she informs her health practitioner of the “decision”, and requests euthanasia. The physician talks to the patient, as per the safeguards, who falsely affirms that the request was autonomous. The physician then converses with the family, who do not admit to having manipulated the patient. Consequently, the physician sends the necessary forms to the Registrar, which approves the request, and the patient is euthanised.

This example indicates that, even when the safeguards are followed, patients can nonetheless be manipulated into requesting euthanasia against their wishes.

Objections

There are two obvious rejoinders that would nullify this argument. Firstly, someone might contend that it is all very well and good to theorise about these kinds of abusive situations, but, in reality, no one would ever do such a thing. To this objection, I would quote ethicist J. D. Velleman: “no one would ever do such a thing as abuse his own children or parents—except that many people do”[iii]. In light of the atrocities that have occurred and do regularly occur in our society, the aforementioned scenario hardly seems unlikely. But, if it is not unlikely, then it deserves to be seriously considered, and should be a significant factor in our assessment of the worthiness of this bill.

Secondly, many people argue that there is no evidence of significant abuse or error occurring in countries and states where assisted-dying is currently legal. As one study indicates, “rates of assisted dying in Oregon and in the Netherlands showed no evidence of heightened risk for [vulnerable groups]”[iv]. When considering an increase in euthanasia among elderly persons, other researchers state “we deem it less plausible [than other explanations] that the trends indicate more vulnerable groups feeling increasingly forced to choose euthanasia”[v].

Two responses come to mind. Firstly, interpretation of these findings is mixed. Though some researchers conclude that there is no indication of abuse, others question both their methodologies and conclusions[vi]. In some cases, the data is consistent with error and abuse. For example, a study of euthanasia in Belgium found that life-ending measures were frequently enacted without an explicit request, and that in these situations “family burden and the consideration that life was not to be needlessly prolonged were more often reasons for using life-ending drugs”[vii].

However, a more fundamental consideration is this: if manipulation were occuring, it is not clear that we should expect to find evidence. After all, the abused person is deceased, and therefore cannot testify, while those who committed the abuse are unlikely to admit their wrongdoing. Since these are probably the only parties privy to the abuse, a lack of evidence is what we should expect both if manipulation is occuring, and if it is not. Therefore, absence of evidence does not equal absence of abuse.


In sum, I do not believe that the ELCB provides adequate safeguards against manipulation, and therefore it should not be accepted. If euthanasia is to be legalised, we as a society have a duty to make sure it does not adversely affect vulnerable people. As such, any proposed legislation must be subjected to rigourous scrutiny to determine whether it achieves this end. In this regard, I believe the End of Life Choice Bill fails.

 

Endnotes:


[i]ELCB Section 4: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/member/2017/0269/latest/DLM7285950.html

[ii] ELCB Section 8: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/member/2017/0269/latest/DLM7285956.html

[iii] Velleman, J.D. (1992). Against the right to die. Journal of medicine and philosophy, 17(6), p. 675.

[iv] Battin, M. P., van der Heide, A., Ganzini, L., van der Wal, G., & Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B. D. (2007). Legal physician-assisted dying in Oregon and the Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on patients in “vulnerable” groups. Journal of Medical Ethics 33, p. 591.

[v] Dierickx, S., Deliens, L., Cohen, J., & Chambaere, K. (2016). Euthanasia in Belgium: trends in reported cases between 2003 and 2013. Canadian Medical Association Journal 188(16), p. 412.

[vi] E.g. Finlay, I. G., & George, R. (2011). Legal physician-assisted suicide in Oregon and The Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on. Journal of Medical Ethics 37, pp. 171-174.

[vii] Chambaere, K., Bilsen, J., Cohen, J., Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B. D., & Mortier F, D. L. (2010). Physcian-assisted deaths under the euthanasia law in Belgium: a population-based survey. Canadian Medical Association Journal 182(9), pp. 896-897.

 

Engaging with people on the problem of evil

Guest article written by Michael Otto. Originally posted at www.nzcatholic.org.nz/2018/07/11/engaging-with-people-on-the-problem-of-evil/. Republished with permission from NZ Catholic.


It is not often that St Augustine and his wisdom are subjects of everyday conversation, but his thinking might be given more of an airing after US Christian apologist Mary Jo Sharp visited New Zealand. Mrs Sharp, a Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, spoke in Christchurch, Auckland and Tauranga recently, courtesy of Thinking Matters, a ministry that “encourages New Zealand Christians to think more deeply about what they believe, and why they believe it, so they can present the Christian faith as both rational and true”.

In Auckland, Mrs Sharp spoke at the Greenlane Christian Centre on May 25, with her main address titled “Encountering the Problem of Evil in Everyday Conversation”, at the start of a two-day conference on “Confident Christianity”.

She outlined a three-step approach for engaging people on this topic in a way that is aimed not at putting them on the defensive, but rather freeing them to think. The steps are essentially “refine the objections [to belief in God based on evil]”, “define the terms” and “outline your view”.

St Augustine’s treatment of the topic of good and evil was summarised under the second heading.

But Mrs Sharp, a former atheist, introduced the subject on a more personal note, sharing what happened on one occasion after she had given a talk at a women’s ministry event on life having meaning and purpose in God.

“At the end of my talk, a group of women came down to ask me some questions afterwards. There was one lady that just kept hanging towards the back of the group. She kept catching my attention because I noticed that her eyes were completely red. She had been holding back tears.

“As soon as everyone was gone, she made her way up to me and she said, I want to make sure that everyone else had a chance to talk to you because I’m having some real problems about my belief in God. My son died of leukaemia when he was three years old. And I can’t reconcile that with the Church’s teaching on God being good. So I just need to have some conversation with you on this matter.”

Mrs Sharp said this woman’s “questioning lament, her deep grief over the problem of pain and suffering in her own life, is something that is common amongst us as humans”.

“So while a person could say that the argument from evil seems purely academic . . . our experiences in this life continue to thrust it into the conversation, by means of our own suffering. We do not have the luxury of purely pontificating on the matter. We all experience evil and will have to handle it one way or another.”

“One of the first things we need to do,” Mrs Sharp said, “when we encounter this problem in conversation is help the person clarify their objection.”

“So what we are working towards is developing an environment in which both parties can add to the conversation in meaningful ways. So to help create the environment, we want to discover, how does the objector understand their objection? What do they think they mean. To do so we can ask questions, we should ask questions.”

Caveat

At this point, Mrs Sharp made a caveat, one of several that punctuated her talk.

“Because when the lady came to me and said, how can I believe God is good when my son died of leukaemia at three years old, I’m not going to launch into a series of questions to see if she knows what she is saying or what did she mean by that?

“The first thing I am going to do is figure out if this is a person who is grieving and they need me to console, or listen, or if this is a person who wants the answers. . . .

“So with the lady who came up to me, I said, what do you need? Do you need answers or do you need a hug, because I am good for both. She said I think I need a little of both. That’s my intro, that’s where I’m OK to keep going.

“You are going to hear me caveat this all the way through, because the problem of evil has been handled at such a philosophical level so removed from the experience of suffering, we feel that we can lay that philosophical bomb on people without considering where they are at.”

Having made sure her audience was absolutely clear on this point, Mrs Sharp continued: “One of the first questions I always ask is: What do you mean by that?”

“Do you mean to say that this particular instance of evil wouldn’t have happened if God was good?

“Do you mean to say that no evil ever happens if God is good?

“I will just keep asking clarifying questions until they find something that they can say, yes, that’s what I mean, and something I can understand too.” Having refined the objection in this way, the next step is to define terms, Mrs Sharp said, especially what is meant by “evil”.

“When someone makes an objection to God using the existence of some evil as the basis of that objection, they are making an assumption — they are assuming that evil is real.

“They have to believe that evil has some sort of real existence in order to make the objection.”

Mrs Sharp said she asks people making this objection to give their definition of evil and then she can respond with her own thinking.

“I suggest that in order for us to understand what is evil, we need to know what is good. The two concepts are inextricably tied together. For evil has a parasitic relationship to good.

“As St Augustine said, there can be no evil, where there is no good.

“Evil is not a thing in itself, evil is a corruption of some good thing, evil is a privation of good. That’s what we mean when we say ‘evil’ .

“There are various corruptions of good – physical, moral. . . .”

“So for objective or real evil to exist, some kind of objective good must exist as well,” Mrs Sharp said. “In order to make the objection to God on the basis of evil, we need to know what is good and where we get that from.

“What I hear most frequently are arguments that assume there is some kind of objective good and there is some kind of standard, without ever giving a basis for how we know something is good at all.

“What we need is a standard of goodness.”

Standard

Mrs Sharp explained what would be necessary for such a standard.

“Whatever they bring to you [as a source for a standard for goodness], what you are checking for in that source, is — does that source effectively establish a standard of goodness for all people, at all times, at all places, something that is unchanging and consistent, because that is what we mean when we say ‘standard’.

“Why? — so that everyone would have the potential to discover good, so that we can have can have intelligible and consistent discovery.

But some people might respond that there is no such objective standard, Mrs Sharp said.

“I might say something [to them]. . . along the lines of this seems to me to be a tremendously important issue to investigate. You seem to be a person who believes in good and evil, you seem to live like they are real, you also don’t seem to be the kind of person who wants to be deceived, or hold on to delusions, so it appears we might have to do some homework in this area between us. And I might suggest a book or a website article we both can read and then come back and discuss.”

But if people adamantly insist “there is no standard at all? Then there is no objection from evil [to the existence of God]”.

At this point in other, more fruitful conversations, it would be helpful to ask the person if the Christian view can be shared, Mrs Sharp said.

“I might say can I tell you why I believe Christianity offers an objective standard of goodness and why it further explains the presence of evil as well as offering answers to the problem?” she said.

Starting with Jesus’ statement that “no-one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18), Mrs Sharp spoke on the goodness of God and how “objective moral values have their source in the eternal character, nature and substance of a loving, just and self-sufficient God” (quoting evangelical Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis).

She then gave an outline of salvation history from an evangelical Protestant Christian perspective, finishing by stating: “God defeats the consequence of our evil, he defeats death. The way God does this is he steps into the experience himself.”

“Though the problem of evil is the greatest objection to the existence of God, as [philosopher] William Lane Craig says, paradoxically, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem of evil. If God does not exist, then we are lost without hope in a life filled with gratuitous and unredeemed suffering.

“He said God is the final answer to the problem of evil, for he redeems us from evil, and takes us into the everlasting joy of an immeasurable good, fellowship with himself.” Mrs Sharp finished her talk by revisiting her conversation with “that lady I was talking to about the problem of her son”.

“I walked through this with her, and though I gave her a lot of answers, she has still got a long way to go.

“What I want to remind you of is it is not going to be that easy for people. The problem of evil is a very hard question. And though we can find the answers and say that makes sense, when you experience the problem of evil, when you experience pain and suffering in your own life, sometimes it is going to feel like it doesn’t make sense. So we need to remind ourselves of what God is doing on that cross for us.

“It is the most powerful event in human history.”

The Simulation Hypothesis

The Hypothesis

The concept of a computer simulation is familiar enough to the modern reader. It is a model world built by a computer scientist to test his or her theories of meteorology, the spread of diseases, economics and so forth. The proponent of the Simulation Hypothesis begins by supposing that there are no limits to the development of this technology: It may be that our scientifically advanced descendants will be able to build and run simulations that replicate life on Earth with exhaustive accuracy—digitally reconstructing not only the atomic composition of every object on Earth but also the neurological structure of every human brain. And this, they suggest, has the unsettling entailment that the postulated simulation might include a simulated but conscious version of you and me.1

Present day simulations single out a particular natural phenomenon for analysis. What possible purpose could such unconstrained simulations serve? Westerhoff offers a suggestion.2 We often wonder how history might have turned out if some small but crucial detail of the past had been different. What if, say, Mao Zedong had died of a heart attack during his famous swim across the Yangze River? To us such questions are unanswerable. But perhaps not to our descendants. They could (so the theory goes) run a simulation of Earth between 1875 and 2018, a simulation that matched to history at every point with one exception: Mao Zedong dies on July 16, 1966.

And here, claims Westerhoff, arises a still more unsettling possibility: The possibility that we are living in one of these simulations; the possibility that, say, Mao Zedong did die in 1966 and the architects of the simulation are interested to see how human history would have turned out had he lived. Nor should our ignorance of our unreality come as a surprise: Since the historical persons on which we are modelled did not believe they lived in a simulation, nor do we.

It is a wild hypothesis. But if we are willing to indulge for a moment its key presuppositions, it also has a certain probabilistic force. And this is because there is in principle no obvious limit to the number of simulations our descendants might choose to run. It is not unreasonable to suppose that they would run tens of thousands or even millions of simulations. And in that case the 100 billion actual humans who have ever existed on Earth might comprise a tiny fraction of the sum total of conscious beings—simulated and actual—who have ever existed. And in that case the probability that you are a simulated human being is on balance greater than the probability that you are an actual human being.3

On the face of it the Simulation Hypothesis (like Last Thursdayism, like Berkeleyan Idealism) would appear to be undisprovable: Faced with any datum advanced against the hypothesis, the proponent could claim that that datum is also part of the simulation. If that were how things stood the hypothesis would still be rationally unaffirmable.However, I am now going to argue that the Simulation Hypothesis is demonstrably false.

A First Pass: Westerhoff

Westerhoff himself considers an argument against the scenario.

Since the computer supervening over the simulation could not be infinite in its computational resources, there is, he says, a regress problem for any simulated world that can run its own simulations, which simulations, ex hypothesi, could run their own simulations in turn, and so on, infinitely. And so any world in which simulations are possible or even an accessible concept is probably not itself a simulation: The architects of the simulation, if they exist, would need to calibrate the program to avoid this scenario.

A Second Pass: Natural Theology

Westerhoff’s counterargument is of limited force. A proponent of the Simulation Hypothesis could just postulate that there is some undiscovered constraint in the simulated physics of our universe which prevents an infinite regress of simulations.5 But this need not trouble an opponent of the hypothesis which faces far more serious difficulties.

The first arises from Natural Theology. Since in its usual formulation, and also by definition, the Simulation Hypothesis imagines that our observable universe is a simulation of an actual universe, even allowing that we are in a simulation fails to discharge all the traditional arguments of Natural Theology. We can therefore argue of the actual universe (which we observe in the mirror image of the simulation) what philosophical theologians have always argued; namely, that Theism is an inference to the best explanation for the ex nihilio origination of material reality, the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics, the origin of life and human mental and moral experience.

What possible relevance does Natural Theology have to the Simulation Hypothesis? It might be argued that the Simulation Hypothesist could simply set the question of the existence of God to one side. Its relevance is this: If these arguments obtain and God exists there are good a priori grounds for believing that a perfect moral agent would not allow fallible moral patients to themselves become moral agents over other moral patients in an unlimited and unconditional way—in the manner of Roko’s Basilisk. So the proponent of the simulation theory has an insupportable burden of proof to shoulder. To make his argument plausible he must prove that God does not exit.

Here, as a last resort, a Simulation Hypothesist might deny that our simulated universe bears any meaningful resemblance to the actual universe. The philosophical cost of this reply is high (since it would greatly attenuate the grounds for postulating the hypothesis in the first place) and profits him not at all. For the most forceful and indefeasible argument for the existence of God is the Cosmological Argument which obtains so long as a single finite and contingent particular is observed.6 And since the simulated universe, if it exists, is itself a contingent and finite particular, the Cosmological Argument obtains even if we allow that we can know nothing at all of the actual universe. As before, to make his argument plausible, the Simulation Hypothesist must first discharge the most forceful argument of Natural Theology in order to prove that God does not exit.

The Death Blow: The Hard Problem

The foregoing difficulties are considerable. But they are trivial compared to the central problem with the Simulation Hypothesis.

In postulating conscious minds that exist in a computer, the hypothesis presupposes that consciousness can be instantiated in a physical substrate and thereby presupposes in turn and without argument a solution to the so-called Hard Problem of consciousness. In fact, it can be shown that mental states are irreducible to the physical in principle. A key feature of the hypothesis is therefore falsifiable. To warrant serious attention, the proponent of the Simulation Hypothesis must first complete an insurmountable task. He must solve the Hard Problem by demonstrating how mental states (intentionality, qualia, first person ontology) are susceptible of reduction to the physical.7

The Simulation Hypothesis has a certain grip on the popular imagination— perhaps in particular among a generation who have grown up playing computer games. It does not, however, stand up to careful scrutiny.

————————————————————

[1] It is worth noting a problem that arises with the Simulation Hypothesis right out of the gate: Recovering enough information about persons long-dead to simulate them is fundamentally impossible since most of the information would have been dissipated as heat and radiated away from Earth at light speed. No finite computing power, however powerful, could complete the task.

[2] Jan Westerhoff, Reality: A Very Short Introduction.

[3] Others, while entertaining the outlandish hypothesis, are more conservative in their probabilities. David Chalmers has estimated the probability that he is living in a simulation at 20 percent.

[4] Hoffman and Rosenkrantz take the view that if something belongs to a universal and commonsense ontology, “then there is a prima facie presumption in favour of its reality. Those who deny its existence assume the burden of proof.” Swinburne has formalised this idea into a basic principle of epistemology which he calls the Principle of Credulity: We should, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, believe that things are the way they seem to be. An unprovable and undisprovable hypothesis that conflicts with our universal and commonsense ontology is therefore to be dismissed on pain of irrationality.

[5] On this view the discovery of such a constraint would provide inductive evidence that we are in a simulation.

[6] See The Cosmological Argument.

[7] See the Argument from Consciousness summarised here in five parts: Qualia, Intentionality, Privileged Access, Nonphysicality and the Conclusion.

Thoughts on why the Holy Bible is worth reading…

“‘The Authority and Relevance of the Bible in the Modern World’ – centers in the truth of the basic assumption of Biblical Christianity that the Bible, the Old Testament and the New, is what throughout it claims to be, the record of an unfolding revelation of God.” – E. M. Blacklock[1]

I was given my first Bible when I was 19 years old. At the time I was transitioning from years as a student and competitive swimmer, to a typical life of a young adult leaving a life of strict discipline. I struck up an unlikely friendship with a young Christian man who spent many months trying to convert me to Christianity. He didn’t quite convince me, but sometime in our friendship he gave me a Bible. It became my most treasured possession. Many years later when I became a believer my Bible became essential as I navigated this radical way of living called Christianity.

Currently, a third of the world’s population identify as Christian[2]. Those 2.2 billion people recognise the Bible as the source of the doctrines of their Christian faith. Yet, despite its popularity, no book in history has been so viciously maligned, intensely scrutinised, misused (unfortunately sometimes for atrocities) and misrepresented.

In April 2018, GQ Magazine published an article: ‘21 Classic Books You Don’t Have To Read By The Time You’re Thirty.’ On the list at number 12 was the Bible. Part of it’s blurb read:

The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned… 

Many Christians rushed to online forums to express their outrage. Yet the comments were nothing new, being reflective of the Bible’s standing in our western secular culture. But was the author correct in his descriptions of the Bible?

While it is true many Christians in the West do neglect personal Bible reading, many of us do read it daily. There are also many Christians who risk their lives to own a Bible in countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian.

The Bible is not a single book with one author. It is an extraordinary collection of 66 individual books and letters. 39 books make up the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Scriptures), and the other 27 make up the New Testament. These books were put together in a Biblical Canon – books that meet the standard and criteria of authoritative inspirational writings[3].

The books of the Bible were written by around 40 authors over a timespan of around 1600 years on three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe, and in three different languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. The authors came from different cultures, education and socio-economic backgrounds, and included: Kings, prophets, battle hardened military leaders, sea battered fishermen, a tax collector, a physician, and even a zealous Pharisee!

Miraculously, despite such diversity, there is a clear meta-narrative – a Golden Thread[4] – weaved throughout the books of the Bible, revealing the story of a creative, relational God and the Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration of humanity. The Bible is beautifully unique in both its complexity and unusual unity.

Is the Bible repetitious?

Repetition is often used in the Bible, giving readers varied perspectives and a more thorough view of events. It also emphasises ideas and themes of importance such as the laws of the Old Testament, or God’s repeated patience with His rebellious people.  The Bible also contains many ‘undesigned coincidences’ where small details in one account of a story add further detail or meaning to accounts by other authors. These are more easily found in repeated narratives such as the Gospels[5].

An example of repetition often put forth by Bible detractors is the question of why there needs to be four Gospels. In the Gospels we are given four very different eyewitness accounts of Jesus. Matthew writes a theological biography of Jesus; Mark from a literal, discipleship perspective; Luke from an historian’s perspective; while John writes from the perspective of an evangelist, prophet and pastor seeking to strengthen the faith of Christians[6]. These four independent perspectives add depth and meaning to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Is the Bible self-contradictory?

As the Bible is a collection of ancient near eastern texts they should not be read through the filter of our western perspective. Many so-called contradictions are not contradictions at all, they are differences, misunderstanding of the text or textual variants. Most English Bibles add textual variants in footnotes. An example of a biblical contradiction is Mark 15:25 where Jesus is crucified on the third hour, whereas John 19: 14-15 has Jesus still standing before Pilot in the sixth hour.  Mark is using Jewish time reckoning – dawn to sundown – placing the crucifixion at around 9am. John if using Roman time reckoning – midnight to midday – places Jesus before Pilot at 6am. John appears to use Roman time reckoning throughout his gospel. 

Is the Bible sententious?

The Bible is full of moral sayings, proverbs and parables. There are lessons to be learned and warnings given, but always with the aim of improving the lives of communities and individuals to whom they were given. Biblical narratives, whether historical or proverbial, give examples of the need for moral laws by sharing the real traits of Biblical characters. Raw emotions, actions, reactions and over reactions are laid bare in both Old and New Testaments. Sins, faults and shameful behaviour and their consequences are exposed rather than hidden. .

Is the Bible foolish?

It is doubtful a ‘foolish’ book could continue the serious worldwide influence the Bible has maintained for over a thousand years. Ironically, this often maligned book continues to sell more copies than any other book in history. People have risked their lives to ensure the Bible reaches believers in countries where it is banned. Others have dedicated their lives to making sure it is translated into indigenous languages. 

The Bible’s influence has brought more good to the world than any other book in history. A few examples are:

Martin Luther King Jnr and his call for human equality; Christian missionaries and their self-less, determined education of the poor, indigenous people and women; William Wilberforce and his tireless and often seemingly hopeless work to end the slave trade; Kate Sheppard and her leadership in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in New Zealand, resulting in the first votes for women in the world[7]; The incredible intensity and beauty found in Classical art, literature and music.

All of the above have their roots in a Christian worldview based on the truths found in the Bible. These truths reveal  every human being as having intrinsic worth and purpose and were created by an awesome loving God. Biblical Christianity was a dominant influence in forming our democratic western culture with all the freedoms we enjoy today.

Is the Bible ill-intentioned?

By its continued existence, despite constant opposition, the Bible proves its own worth and standing. It is a book of good intention and has offered direction, hope and purpose for billions of people over thousands of years. 

The Holy Bible is worth reading. It is a rich library of books and letters containing various literary genres from poetry and prose, through to history, philosophy, and theology. This great Book acknowledges and answers the questions of life giving meaning and a salve to what C. S. Lewis describes as that ‘old ache[8].’

I opened this post with a quote from E. M. Blaiklock’s 1975 lecture and I will finish with his closing remarks:

J. G. Lockhart tells of Sir Walter Scotts last days. The great writer was incapacitated by a stroke. Lockhart writes: ‘He desired to be drawn into the library, and placed by the central window that he might look down upon the Tweed. Here he expressed a wish that I should read to him, and, when I asked from what book, he said – “Need you ask? There is but one.” ‘  True. There is still but one.

Endnotes:

[1] E. M. Blaiklock, OBE, The Authority and Relevance of the Bible in the Modern World, The 2nd Olivier Beguin Memorial Lecture. 1975. E. M. Blaiklock was Chair of Classics at Auckland University from 1947 to 1968. He was a prolific writer of Christian Apologetics. 

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/

[3] These are the number of books in the Protestant Canon accepted by Protestants from the time of the Reformation, although all 66 books were accepted as authoritative from the first century.  There are several other books included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon’s such as the Old & New Testament Apocrypha. I will discuss these further in my next post. See also: Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Klein, WW, Dr., Blomberg, C. L. Dr., Hubbard, Jr, R. L. Dr. 2004, Ch. 4, The Canon and Translations.

[4] John Dickson, A Doubters Guide to the Bible. 2014.

[5] Due to space I have not added examples of undesigned coincidences in this post but will in a future post as it is an interesting topic. The concept of coincidences that are undesigned was first discussed in William Paley’s Horae Paulinae, 1869, and followed further by John James Blunt in his Undesigned Coincidences, 1869. A contemporary book has been written by Lydia McGrew – Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, 2017.

[6] The Holman Concise Bible Commentary, B & H Publishing, 2010.

[7] https://nzhistory.govt.nz/files/documents/womenandthevoteinNewZealand.pdf

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.” 

Why Does Anything At All Exist? Pt. 2

This is the second in a series of posts examining the argument for God’s existence from contingent beings. Click here to read the first post.

In my previous post, I presented the cosmological argument from contingent beings[i], and defended the second premise. As a reminder, here’s how the argument runs:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence
  4. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God[ii].

In this post I’ll argue that (1) is plausibly true—that everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, and that nothing exists inexplicably.  


Observation Supports (1)

As far as observation and evidence go, (1) is very well supported. We regularly observe that things have explanations. For example, we observe that a particular animal exists because its parents reproduced and gave birth to it, or that a house exists because a builder was contracted to construct it. Furthermore, history shows that in instances when humankind once lacked good explanations for some phenomena, an explanation has since been discovered. This gives us good reason to think that someday we’ll be able to explain things that we currently cannot.

Additionally, if (1) were false, then we would expect to observe things that don’t have explanations. But this is not what we observe. As noted above, when we search for explanations, we generally find them, and have good grounds to think we’ll discover one if we don’t. Edward Feser writes “[if (1) were false then] events without any evident explanation would surely be occurring constantly, and the world would simply not have the intelligibility that makes science and everyday common sense as successful as they are. That the world is as orderly and intelligible as it is would be a miracle”[iii].

The Self-Evidence of (1)

As well as being supported by everyday observation, (1) is also somewhat self-evident; consider this example. Imagine you’re tramping through Aotearoa’s native bush with a friend. Together you marvel at the beauty of tui and fantails, and your friend offers intriguing explanations of their behaviours. As you walk and talk, you also ponder the comparative rarity of kauri trees and explanations for their scarcity. Moments later, you spot a smooth, translucent sphere resting among the bushes. “What’s that?” you wonder aloud. Glancing momentarily, your friend responds, “Oh that? It just exists inexplicably” and continues along the track.

What conclusion would you draw? Unless your friend has a propensity for extreme literalism, you would surely assume that she’s joking, and just wants to keep walking. Since we know that things have explanations, no one would take seriously the claim that the sphere literally exists without an explanation.  

Imagine further that the sphere was larger—large enough to encompass New Zealand. Would this negate the need for an explanation? What if it were the size of the earth, or as large as the universe? In both cases, it still calls for explanation. As William Lane Craig writes, “merely increasing the size of the ball does nothing to affect the need of an explanation[iv]”. Similarly, just as the sphere requires an explanation regardless of its size, so the universe seems to require an explanation, despite its immensity.


The idea that everything has an explanation of its existence, then, is supported both by our observation of the world around us, and by our intuitions regarding explanations. Several other arguments can be offered for this notion, and, if you’re interested in further reading, I recommend Edward Feser’s book “Five Proofs of the Existence of God” (particularly chapter 5). An obvious question raised by (1) is, “if everything has an explanation, then what is God’s explanation?”. It is to this question that I’ll turn in my next post.

 

Endnotes:


[i] Contingent beings are beings whose explanation lies in something outside of themselves. They are contingent upon another being for their existence. More on this, and why the argument is referred to this way, in the next post.

[ii] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 54.

[iii] Feser, E. (2017). Five proofs of the existence of God. US: Ignatius Press, p. 149

[iv] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 57.

The Argument from Consciousness: Conclusion

This is my fifth and last post in a series on the Argument from Consciousness—the basic form of which should by now be familiar. The argument begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be reduced to the physical. It then argues that the existence of conscious agents with these mental properties implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause.

My previous four posts have presented four of these properties (qualia, intentionality, privileged access and nonphysicality) and demonstrated that they are in fact insusceptible of reduction to the physical. And since the last property—libertarian free will—is one that I have already addressed on this blog in a previous post, the reader familiar with that post is ready to consider how irreducible metal properties constitute evidence for the existence of God.

Irreducible Mental Properties and Theism

Suppose that a safe is robbed and our working hypothesis is John stole the money from the safe. During the investigation we may discover two kinds of evidence. First, we may find John’s fingerprints at the crime scene and a sum of money on him matching the sum that was stolen. This will be a posteriori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis; that is, consequences to be expected if the hypothesis is true. Second, we may learn that John has a history of robbing safes and is also in debt. These will be a priori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis; that is, factors that belong outside the scope of the hypothesis but nevertheless increase its probable truth.

In what follows I am going to argue that the existence of agents with irreducible mental properties provide a posteriori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis of theism and that the hypothesis of theism gives us a priori grounds to expect agents with irreducible mental properties.

A Posteriori Grounds

Naturalism holds that mindless particles organised in various ways by mindless forces is all that exists. Theism holds that, “Mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth of the evolution of life, has always existed as the matrix and substrate of physical reality.” [1] It follows that irreducible mental properties are entirely to be expected if theism is true and not at all to be expected if theism is false. And this is because mind, while an intractable problem for the naturalist, is basic to a theistic ontology. God, the Basic Being, is a nonphysical conscious self with mental properties—such as intentionality, privileged access, teleology, rationality and free will. Irreducible mental properties therefore stand in the same relation to the hypothesis of theism as John’s fingerprints on the safe to the hypothesis that John robbed the safe. They are the consequences to be expected if the hypothesis is true and not at all to be expected if it is false.

A Priori Grounds

The Bible, moreover, teaches that God created man in his image. For this reason Abrahamic theists have a priori grounds for expecting irreducible mental properties to be instantiated if God exists. [2] It is no surprise on theism that our most novel and essential feature, our mental life, should be irreducible to the physical. And this is because it is imparted to us by our nonphysical creator. Free will, too, is provocatively suggestive of the imago dei since if man exercises libertarian causation he instantiates in miniature the principle of uncaused causation imputed to God in classical theism.

In Is There a God? Oxford professor of philosophy Swinburne finds further a priori grounds for expecting the existence of conscious agents on theism: If God is unlimited in power and intelligence, it is certain that he could create a universe that contained conscious agents; and if He is perfectly good, it is reasonably probable that He would. Writes Swinburne,

We have some understanding of what a good person will do. Good people will try to make other people happy, happy in doing and enjoying worthwhile things (but not happy in causing pain to others). Good people try to help other people for whom they are responsible (for example, their own children) to be good people themselves. Good people seek to share what they have with others and to cooperate with others in all these activities.

God, in other words, might reasonably be expected to create a universe in order to share with us the good things He has—a mental life, knowledge, freedom, love. All of these things require consciousness. And if all humans are to have access to the greatest good of all, knowledge of God himself, they will need to be able to develop sophisticated metaphysical and theological concepts which will require rational intuition and to undergo religious experiences which require conscious perception. It is therefore credibly probable that agents with these abilities will exist if there is a God but incredibly improbable that they would exist if there is not. [3] The benevolence and omnipotence of God therefore stand in the same relation to the hypothesis that God created conscious agents as John’s debt and criminal past to the hypothesis that John robbed the safe: They are factors that belong outside the scope of the hypothesis but increase its probable truth.

I conclude that the existence of conscious agents with irreducible mental properties provides evidence of two kinds that there is a God who created them.

—————————————————–

[1] I am quoting Anthony Flew writing in There Is A God.

[2] We need evidence of John’s criminal past before it can give us reason to expect him to have robbed the safe. Likewise, without independent reasons for thinking that a supreme being of the sort described by classical theism exists, this part of the argument would have no force. However, such independent reasons are available to the proponent of the argument—such as the nine lines of evidence for bare theism presented in Part II of this apologia. Thus the prior probability of the existence of God on evidence X (where God, if he exists, may reasonably be expected to create conscious agents whose existence is otherwise without available explanation) means that X makes the existence of conscious agents more probable. And since the existence of conscious agents with irreducible mental properties also makes the existence of God more probable a posteriori, the coincidence of the two kinds of evidence makes it very probable on the total evidence that God exists and created conscious agents with irreducible mental properties.

[3] Incredibly improbable since, as we have seen in the previous four posts, postulating that mindless particles organised by mindless forces is all that exists leaves us without the explanatory resources to account for our mental life. And of course this is no small matter: That we have a mental life of thoughts and perceptions is the most fundamental fact of human experience and the starting point for every other kind of inquiry.

 

Why Does Anything at all Exist?

“Philosophy starts in wonder, and wonder impels us to find reasons for things”[i]

When I was a child, on the odd occasion I would find myself lying in bed at night, wondering what it would be like to not-exist. After confounding myself with such reflection, I was naturally led to wonder what it would be like if nothing at all existed. Is it possible that nothing could have existed? Why does anything at all exist? It seems possible that, instead of the cosmos existing, there could have been nothing at all. So why does it exist? It took mere minutes before my frazzled and awestruck mind gave up on these questions and slipped into slumber. Little did I know that such questions have been topics of reflection among intellectuals since the great Greek philosophers. In particular, the question of why anything at all exists is the foundation for a debated argument for God’s existence—the cosmological argument from contingent beings.


The Argument

Why does anything at all exist? Many would agree that things that exist must have an explanation; a reason why they are. Consider the universe—by which I mean everything that has existed, does exist, and will exist. If it’s true that things that exist have an explanation, then, provided the universe exists, there must be an explanation for its existence. Furthermore, various thinkers have suggested that if the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God. Their conclusion, then, is that God is the explanation of the universe’s existence. To summarise:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence
  4. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God[ii].

This argument is logically sound—meaning that if someone wants to deny the conclusion (5), then they must deny one or more of the premises (1-4). At first blush, premise 4 may look as though the theist is assuming what she’s meant to be proving. Never fear—I’ll explain and defend that premise in a future post. For now, I’ll examine premise 3 and argue that it is plausibly true.

Is the universe a “thing”?

That the universe exists is patently obvious to virtually all people. You might wonder, then, why bother defending this premise? Well, although hardly any person would deny that the universe exists, some might deny that it is a “thing” that requires an explanation. After all, the universe is a collection of everything that exists, and not all collections of things are actually things themselves.

For example, consider the difference between your body and a collection of random items. Your body is a collection of body parts—hands, feet, legs etc.— and, I think, it is fair to say that it’s a “thing”. We can coherently ask questions like “why is my body weary?”, or “why doesn’t my body feel hungry?”. Or, if we’re feeling philosophical, we might wonder “why does my body exist?”.

In contrast, imagine you have a collection of items sitting on your desk. Included in this collection are a pen, your phone, and a water bottle. These three items are not a “thing” so to speak, but rather a collection. Though it makes sense to ask why any one of these individual items exists (i.e. “why does my phone exist?”), it doesn’t seem to make sense to ask “why does this collection of items exist?”. This is because the individual items are not unified in any way, and once each item has been explained there is no “thing” left to explain[iii].

The objection, then, is that the universe is more like the random collection than it is like your body. Once we explain every individual component of the universe, then there is no “thing” left to explain. And, if the universe is not a “thing”, then it may not need an explanation.

Defending Premise 3

How might a theist respond? Philosopher Stephen Davis argues that the universe is a thing since it possesses two essential properties of things. Firstly, it has an identity apart from other things. “The universe” is not the same as planet earth or your pet cat—it has a distinct identity. In other words, it’s something other than the earth or your cat, or any other thing that exists.

Secondly, it has properties. Davis writes, “[the universe] has certain unique properties like a certain pressure, density, temperature, space-time curvature, and so on. In its very early history everything was so smashed together that there wasn’t even atomic structure, so that the only thing there was the universe itself”[iv].

Davis also contends that, although the universe is a collection of things, it has a unifying principle, and therefore is more like your body than the collection of random items. All of the things that make up the universe are causally connected. For example, I exist because of my parents, who exist because of theirs. The leaf travels down the street because the wind blows it. The tide rises and falls because of the gravitational pulls of the earth, sun, and moon. We might describe the unifying principle of the universe as “the origin of all its members in some prior existing thing or things”[v]. For these reasons, Davis concludes that the universe is an existing thing.


I’m not certain that my boyhood-self would have understood this argument or its implications, but today, thankfully, I can, and I consider it a sound argument for God’s existence. If what Davis argues is true, then our common-sense intuition that the universe is something that exists is correct. Premise 3, then, is true. What remains is to determine whether the other premises are true, and that’s a task I’ll undertake in future posts.

 


Endnotes:

[i] Pruss, A. R. (2006). The principle of sufficient reason: a reassessment. NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 4.

[ii] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 54.

[iii] Davis, S. T. (2006). Christian philosophical theology. NY: Oxford University Press, p. 4

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid