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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bad Things Happen When Philosophers Do Algebra

I was about halfway through an ethics class last week and we were working through an ethical dilemma I had posed for the class. In the process of our discussion I was struck by an idea which I presented briefly to my students but would like to flesh out a little bit here. I am certainly interested in your response for this post because if you can convince me that the idea will hold some water I may rework it into a full paper. Keeping in line with some of my previous posts, this idea revolves around the worth of individuals.

The context for this, is the dilemma (there are many forms of it) in which someone is faced with a choice between actively saving five lives but causing a single death (not their own) or refusing to act and thereby allowing five deaths but not causing the death of the one person. In essence the idea is that if you do nothing you will passively allow evil which you could only prevent by causing evil to a smaller number of people.

We had some interesting back and forth discussing how the situation might change depending on whether or not  we knew some or all of the people who would be effective. The general consensus of the class was that so long as you don't actually know any of the people involved, killing the one person to save the five would be the right thing to do. This changed, however, if you knew the one person. Not everyone agreed but the majority was in favor of allowing the five deaths if the only alternative was killing someone you knew. I asked if this might be because we knew the value of the one person but did not know the value of the five. They agreed that it was, and went so far as to say that if we knew the one person to be a very bad person, that we would be justified in causing that person's death in order to save the lives of five people who's value was undetermined. This was when the idea struck me. I wrote the following equation on the board:

e   =/</>   x  

In this equation a,b,c,d and e are the five people who will die without intervention and x is the person who will die if they act. I will suggest that if people are assigned worths varying between, say, 1 and 100, and we didn't know the actual value of each person, it would make sense to assume that 
e   >   x
on the other hand, if we know the value of x say because we are related to him, we can give it an actual value, say 95. With this value plugged in it becomes relatively less likely that a+b+c+d+e will have as much value as that, especially to us given that we don't know them. In fact, using this sort of ethics math, the most unlikely outcome is :
 d e   =   x
run the numbers and it is clear that the most likely outcome is: 
e   >   x

Now as logical as all of this may be, I think that while the structure is sound, the whole process suffers from one basic flawed premise: an individual's worth does not vary between 1 and 100 on any scale. In point of fact, each individual's worth is infinite and when we plug that into the equation it becomes clear that 
e   =   x
is the only possible outcome. After all, any number of infinite values, when added together can only equal an infinite value:
 + ∞ + ∞ + ∞ + ∞   =   ∞

So this is the idea; it is impossible to "calculate" the outcome of our moral decisions regarding individuals precisely because each and every individual is of infinite value. We must therefore find some other way of deciding what is right and what is wrong. At the least this seems to work as one more reason I am not a utilitarian, what to the rest of you think?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

All the great art in my life.

 A little of my buddy's poetry.

And my wife's music.

I am surrounded by incredibly talented people... just sayin'

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Do you like Green Eggs and Ham?

  I heard a sermon on Psalm 73 today. As a whole, the sermon did an excellent job of unpacking both the direct meaning and the emotive message of the Psalm (as an aside I think that non-religious folk really miss out by not getting a lecture style presentation once a week to mull over). Specifically though I was struck by the basic argument the psalmist (a fellow named Asaph) makes. He begins noticing that the wicked have all the really nice stuff in life. He mentions that this worried him, made him envious and ultimately almost caused him to abandon God; after all, if the wicked get all the good stuff, what is the point in being good? Then he catches himself and laughs at himself. He says that when he entered the sanctuary all his doubts vanished. He then spends a bit of time chiding himself for being foolish and then gives his answer to the original problem: "the presence of God is my good."
  That's it. It doesn't end with "surely the blessed with prosper and their vineyards will produce much and they will ultimately point and laugh at the wicked". He just says he realized that compared to all the good things life has to offer (and he doesn't really question that they are good things), being the the presence of God outshines everything. Coming from my background, this answer reminds me of two authors. Aristotle spoke of eudaimonia as the highest good for man; the good which would outweigh all other goods. And C.S. Lewis wrote extensively about joy or sehnsucht as that thing that we are made for; the experience which breaks through our ordinary lives and gives us that brief hint of being complete, of coming home to a home we have not yet seen. It seems as though Asaph decided that the point in following God, is having a relationship with God. It doesn't matter to him how much nice stuff the wicked can get, none of if can bear a candle to being in the presence of God.
  I don't think that most religious people today would have said this (I think many do believe it). We usually hear something like "If you just take the long view, the wicked will be punished and the righteous who love God will have pleasures forever". Why not say "taste and see that the Lord is good". Or, to quote one more great thinker "Try it, try it and you may, try it and you may I say!". Could it be that we don't trust God to be that rapturous? Do we not trust God to be Joy?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Does Jesus Change the Flavor of Life?

  As a response to a comment in my last post, I was asked :
 "what is the difference between believing in an absolute Christ versus an illusory Christ if the end result as it pertains to your life and behavior towards fellow man is the same?"
 which I think is an important question and will (I hope) help to clarify my thoughts as to why truth is so important to me. In this response, I will be taking a lot from an essay C.S. Lewis wrote (Man or Rabbit) in which he addresses a similar question. As I sat down to answer the question, I kept wanting to focus on different parts of it. In the end my answer became to complicated for a simple reply and so I have decided to turn int into this post.
  I have several answers and I would like to first list them, and then I will comment a bit on each one. My answers are: "All the difference in the world"; "no real difference at all"; and "that question isn't a question." So let me start with "all the difference in the world":
  Now I might do many of great and sacrificing things for other people if I believe in an illusory Christ, but I will only do them up until I run into a good reason not to. If I believe in an illusory Christ, I do not believe in a person with whom I have a real relationship and to whom I am actually responsible. When the ethics become tough, I can always remind myself that Jesus is a "helpful illusion" which means that I can abandon the illusion just as soon as it ceases to be helpful. If, on the other hand, I believe in an absolute Christ, the questions of "helpful" or "beneficial" will not really come up. When it becomes difficult or unhelpful or seems unwise to show agape to my neighbor, the real Jesus does not let me off the hook. The absolute Jesus is a completely demanding ethical taskmaster (in churches we call this holiness) and He doesn't really seem to care that much about how hard, confusing or demanding it is for me to have agape, He insists that I show it anyway. And this makes sense because an absolute Jesus knows more than me, is wiser than me and is better than me; an illusory Jesus cannot, by definition, be any greater than I am. In fact, if Jesus is an absolutely real person, I ought to expect that I will not understand all of the things He asks me to do.
 My second answer, "no difference at all" begins to lead to my third response but is probably worth the stop along the way. It comes from my assumption that it is actually impossible to believe in something we do not think is actually true. In fact I think that this is supported by the fact that we have a word for when someone tries to believe in something they do not think is actually true, it is called "pretending". So on that level I would have to say that someone can only really believe in an illusory Jesus by making pretend. Either they are pretending that He is real, in which case they will ultimately make the same important life decisions as someone who believes that Jesus doesn't exist at all and refuses to pretend He does, or they are pretending that He is an illusion (I sometimes wonder if many of our post-modern brothers and sisters fall into this category) when they actually believe that He is real and then they will ultimately make the same crucial life decisions as someone who openly professes the absolute reality of Jesus. One final option would be that they believe He does exist but are pretending not to so that they don't have to deal with His existence (James points out that even the devil believes in God). In this situation I suppose that the person would make the same crucial life decisions as someone who doesn't believe that Jesus is real although I think that they would not be able to make them honestly.
  Finally I would answer "that question is not a question" because on it's surface it pretends to be neutral as to whether or not Jesus is illusory but on a deeper level it only works as a question if the answer is that Jesus is illusory. Jesus himself claimed that He makes a huge difference in the world (Matt 10:34, John 12:46, John9:39). If the existence of the God-man is an actual fact that has to be taken into account when we make our life choices, then it is impossible that the end result of our life decisions as they "pertain to [our] life and behavior towards our fellow man" would "remain the same". It is a bit like asking whether or not it is important to add real salt to our meal instead of adding illusory salt to our food so long as the end result is the same. We have to answer that real salt makes a difference to taste and that illusory salt doesn't and therefore the end result simply cannot be the same. The only way it could is if there were no such thing as real salt and all salt were actually illusory. In the same way, the only way there could be no difference between an absolute and an illusory Jesus is if there were no real Jesus.
  So my final answer to the question is: "Yes it makes a great deal of difference whether we believe in an absolute Jesus or an illusory Jesus and that difference is manifested (among other places) in my life and my behavior towards other people."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Are the things we know really things?

I make an effort (sometimes less successfully than others), when I run across an idea that first strikes me as silly or clearly wrong, to learn what the wise people who hold an idea think about it and how they justify it before I will assert my first impression. When I am able to do this, it has usually served me fairly well. Some ideas have turned out to be incredibly profound and have become important influences to my understanding of the world. Others have turned out to be just as silly as they seemed at first, but either way I certainly understand much more after my investigations than I did before.

I am currently working through that process with an approach to theology and philosophy which I will call theological post-modernism. I have a bit of a history with post-modernism in general and had even come to the conclusion that it was one of the ultimately wrong ideas I have tried to give some real consideration to. My reason for rejecting post-modernism so far is fairly straight forward: post-modernism claims to deny the existence of absolute truth. I know that to many of us living in a generally post-modern culture, even the idea of absolute truth sounds harsh, unloving and somehow academically totalitarian, and I suppose that in some ways it is. As I understand it, believing in absolute truth means believing that there are some things, events and even abstractions which absolutely do exist. Examples would be moral absolute truths like "it was evil of Hitler to instigate the holocaust" or ontological truths like "I exist" or "God exists" or "you exist". These absolute truths are things which are part of our universal reality. They just are and they are completely unaffected by whether or not any one of us consents to them, how we feel about them, whether or not we know them and whether or not we believe them to be true. Another way to put it would be that because there is absolute truth, it is possible for people to be wrong about things.

I still believe in absolute truth, but I am not sure that this theological post-modernism is attacking it. Instead, theological post-modernism seems to be attacking the idea that we can (and sometimes even should) prove things in an indubitable way. In other words it questions the validity of iron clad empirical or rational proof. It want's to suggest (I think and hope) that there are other ways of knowing, other ways of getting at the absolute truths which we want and whom we crave in Christ. People and writers who fall into this camp seem to be fond of criticizing the enlightenment and to some extent the reformation as a time when the western world narrowed down to the two categories of empirical and rational truth thereby excluding the many other forms of knowing. They seem to call this enlightenment approach "objective truth" which has really thrown me off balance because I was right with them (I like to think of myself as a neo-pre-modern thinker) until they started denouncing objective truth since "objective truth" sounds so much like "absolute truth"; especially since "subjective truth" works as an opposite to both of them.

But I think that this initial impression was mistaken. I think that by "objective truth", theological post-modernists really mean "objective knowledge" and don't mean "the real nature of the cosmos in all it's natural and supernatural aspects". If I am right, then there is some really good, really exciting thinking going on. If not then I will have to be a little worried about the future of a Church which worships a God they do not believe to exist in any absolute or universally applicable way.
 Let me conclude with two cautions; one to theological modernists and one to theological post-modernists. To the theological modernists I want to say that you need to notice who and what the post-modernists are worshiping. They are worshiping Christ. The Christ who is and who was and who is to come. They are not denying the Logos and because they have re-discovered ways of knowing God which were common to the apostles and the Church up until the enlightenment, they may well be drawing nearer to Him than you are, limited as you might be by mere empiricism and rationalism.

To the theological post-modernists I want to say, please re-examine your language. to those of us brought up in a traditional church it often sounds like you are saying that Jesus doesn't really exist, that you just get a good emotional rush from pretending that He does. It sounds like you are telling us that is would be fine to orient our lives around an illusion even if we know that it was an illusion. Can you see why your conservative brethren become defensive when they "hear" you saying that it doesn't matter whether or not their Saviour really is. Taken to the extreme it feels to them like you are denying God's first revelation of His name "I Am That I Am". I don't believe you mean that but because you are using post-modern language, that is what it sounds like.

Can we all say that God is Love?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Agape and Politics, Neighbors and Society

  Having started with what promises to be an incredibly controversial topic I hope to disappoint by beginning and concluding with non-controversial points (who knows what might happen in between). My foundational assumption is that as Christians we are called to agape (originally translated as "charity" then as "love") for our neighbors. I believe that our neighbors are anyone and everyone we meet or become aware of who happens to need agape (which is pretty much everyone). I understand agape to be genuine care for someones well being even and above our own well being. If this is as non-controversial as I think it is, let's move on.
  I have become aware, over the last several years, that people of good political will claim to be motivated by a love for society or for their country or culture. Because this good will towards society tends to be more evident in one political party than in others at a given time, Christians tend to feel a certain pressure to identify with whichever party that is. Those who choose to identify with other parties usually defend their participation as wisdom seeing through platforms which "claim to help but will ultimately hurt". I do not want to fault the motives of either group of Christians. I believe agape should always be encouraged as a motivation both in political and private spheres. What I think is rather tragically missing on both sides is an awareness of the second half of our calling. We are to have agape for our neighbors. Contrast this with having agape for society.
  Neighbors are always individuals, society is not. Society is bigger than individuals but it is less important; that is, society is only as important as the individuals of whom it is constructed. The worth, the value of society comes from the individuals (the neighbors) which are it's constituents. It is worth noticing what the effects of valuing society over the neighbor are. If society is our primary focus then we must be willing to "break a few eggs" to make our "omelet". Put another way, if society is more important than the neighbor then we might have to sacrifice the occasional neighbor for the good of society. I think that most people and nearly all politicians take this for granted.
  But if we turn the focus around, something truly beautiful emerges. If we focus on having agape for each and every neighbor we run across or become aware of, we must ultimately benefit society since society is made up exclusively of neighbors. Thus if we prioritize society over the neighbor we fail to show agape to at least some neighbors. In fact I suspect that we will fail to have agape for society as well since it is impossible to value an abstract (society) over a concrete (ourselves and our neighbors). If, instead, we prioritize our neighbor over society, we will end up having agape for each and every part of society we encounter. C.S. Lewis called this the "law of first and second things". He pointed out that when we put first things first we nearly always get the second things as well. but when we try to put second things first we end up with neither first or second things.
  So what is my conclusion? I think the implication here is not that Christians shouldn't be involved in civil government, or that we need to avoid associating with any particular party. What I do think is that we should be incredibly careful when it comes to supporting any law which admits to breaking "a few eggs". Christians are and ought to be many things but we can never be utilitarians.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Myth of Balance

  Why not begin with a bang? I have been thinking about this particular issue since one of my education/pedagogy classes from a local community college. I don't remember the content of the particular class but I do remember driving home thinking "wow, people actually do believe that now" I had heard the myth quite a few times before but had always thought of it as PC propaganda, I was shocked that night to realize that the purveyors of the propaganda seem to be actually drinking their own koolaid. I suspect that any of you who actually read this will either be shocked and appalled at what I have to say, or will be rather incredulous that anyone believes the myth and will think it rather foolish of me to argue against such a patently absurd proposition in the first place. Either way please let me know.
  The myth of balance is the idea that all people have a sort of "balance" or positive traits. The suggestion is that while some people have certain strengths, these strengths are "balanced" in them by corresponding weaknesses which may themselves be someone else's strength; ultimately resulting in a sort of strength/weakness egalitarianism in the human race. Thus one child may be exceptionally bright when it comes to mathematics but it is expected that she "makes up" for it by having poor social skills or being an athletic clutz. Some other student will be generally "well rounded" meaning that they don't exhibit any particular strengths or weaknesses. Finally there may be a student who seems to have nothing going for him whatsoever but it is expected that he is a particularly good hearted sort of person or that he lives in circumstances which his classmates would handle much more poorly .
  The myth is especially common among teachers but I hear it popping up all over the place. Most often I run into it in people who are either good heartedly trying to figure out how show or say that they value some other person whom they have just accused of having some tremendous deficit; "yeah he really can't keep his temper but boy is he good at math". Sometimes it shows up as an attempt at humility after someone receives a complement; "I'm glad you liked my poem but boy was I bad at math in high school". In both situations I think the person using the myth is trying to avoid the appearance of believing in a hierarchy of being. No one wants to come across as believing that any one person is better than any other person.
  This is a problem because some people clearly are better than other people. The exceptionally bright math student may actually be polite, well intentioned, a great athlete and working hard to improve her character. Mother Theresa may not have had any profound weaknesses, of course she may have but we are under no obligation to assume so. Furthermore if you spend five minutes I'm reasonably certain that you could come up with a list of people, past and present, whom you believe to be better than yourself. (If you can't then should I congratulate you on sainthood or set you free from the basement you must have been imprisoned in since birth?) The superiority and inferiority of the many members of this human race is patently obvious, to deny it would involve a strange attempt to find faults in Ghandi and virtues in Stalin.
  In fact, the myth is so weak that I can not find a single argument to set up in support of it. The only reason I can think of for believing the myth is one I have already alluded to, that people use it so as not to sound like elitists. We feel bad if we don't say it. And this, I will guess, is because we want so badly, and so rightly, to believe that everyone has value. The value of each individual is certainly an important belief and to the extent that the myth perpetuates it in our minds, the myth does some good, but not very much. In fact even here the myth does quite a bit of damage (lies are like that).
  Each individual does have infinite worth, and they have it as a result of being human. Not by any other means.The myth would lead us to believe that people have worth on the basis of their strengths, moral, academic, athletic, artistic or any other. It argues that we have to insist that any one persons strengths are matched in any other person in other areas. This is well intentioned but it begins with a lie. Ironically it is an incredibly elitist lie. It then trains its followers to try and fabricate strengths in other people in order to see those people as valuable. But if those people are valuable regardless and indeed are of infinite worth  regardless of their strengths then is it not demeaning and insulting to say to them "you are valuable because you are extremely artistic or spiritual or moral or discerning or intelligent"? Isn't that the same as telling them "you are only as valuable as your traits and if you lost all your abilities tomorrow you would loose all value in my eyes."
  So I would suggest that all people are beings of infinite worth but are as complexly superior and inferior to one another as could possibly be. We are beings of incredible variety becoming ever more and less like our perfect Father but each the treasured, beloved apple of His eye. Regardless of what we do, He loves us not because of what we can do but because of what and who we are.