Friday, October 29, 2010

Some Reflections on Kierkegaard

The other day, due to the confluence of an error on my part and being a bit behind the syllabus, my philosophy of religion class ended up being about two historical figures that I do not usually consider together: Søren Kierkegaard and Blaise Pascal. Specifically, I considered the Kierkegaardian case for what is usually labeled “fideism” in the same lecture as I outlined Pascal’s famous “wager.” For reasons I won’t get into here, this juxtaposition led me to reflect on Kierkegaard’s fideism in a somewhat different light than usual. I want to share some of those reflections here.

Fideism is generally defined as the thesis that it is sometimes appropriate (especially in relation to ultimate matters pertaining to the fundamental nature of reality and the meaning of our lives) to believe something on faith rather than based on reason and evidence, perhaps even in the teeth of reason and evidence.

What this means depends on what we take believing something “on faith” to mean. In practice if not in theory, believing something “on faith” often ends up meaning essentially the same as believing it “just because” (where there is absolutely nothing after the “because”), and doing so with complete certainty that one is right (again, with no foundation at all). Typically, the believer then adds that this conviction is due to God implanting it, even though one has no reason to think that God implanted it.

Understood in this sense, if I happen to believe that the entire population of African elephants is right at this moment flying around inside my refrigerator, then so long as I have no reason and evidence for believing this but remain firm in my belief, and so long as I insist that I believe it because God implanted the belief in me (even though I have no reason at all for thinking that this is true), then I am believing it on faith. Seen in this light, it becomes a challenge to justify the worth that is so often attached to believing something on faith.

But this isn’t Kierkegaard’s fideism. In fact, if fideism is defined in terms of believing things without evidence, I think one misses Kierkegaard’s point altogether. Because for Kierkegaard, faith isn’t really about what you believe at all. In fact, so long as what you care the most about is the content of your belief, faith in Kierkegaard’s sense has eluded you.

Consider an analogy. Suppose you meet someone for whom you feel an immediate attraction. You go on a few dates. You start to fall in love. In fact, you feel yourself falling hard. But then you pause and ask yourself, “Who is this person, really? Does she deserve my love? Is she the kind of person with whom I can sustain a long-term relationship?” Suppose you take these questions seriously and so back off from your burgeoning feelings so as to get an appropriately objective perspective. You investigate her history, interview her friends and her boss at work, all the while not letting your feelings for her color what you hear, since you want to get a wholly objective picture. Finally, through this process, you come to know more facts about her than virtually any other person alive.

But, of course, at this point the rhythm of love has been shattered. You have no romantic feelings for her anymore because you’ve stifled them in favor of a wholly objective consideration of what is true and false about her. Likewise, in the process of doing this, she’s sensed your withdrawal and moved on emotionally. Even should you decide from what you learn that a love relationship with her might be a good idea “on paper,” the very process of pursuing such an investigation has killed any chance of having such a love relationship in fact. Furthermore, the things you learn through such an objective investigation are the wrong things in any event. What really matters for whether a love relationship is possible depends on what you learn through relating to her as a lover.

When it comes to the ultimate nature of reality, Kierkegaard thinks something along the same lines is the case. Kierkegaard tells us that “the highest truth is that the knower is an existing subject,” by which he means that the most important thing for me to know is that I am a subject of experiences with a life to live and relationships to form. One of those relationships is with reality—with the world around me as it truly is. But if I investigate the world objectively and dispassionately, in order to collect all the right facts about it, I become like the deluded fool who squashes any chance at actually being in love with a real person because he is too focused on collecting all those facts that can only be collected by setting passionate interest aside.

The real truth about me is that I am a creature who cares passionately, and to be true to myself, I must live passionately in relation to the world. If I squash that passion in favor of objectivity, I stifle the truth about me and so fail to live the truth—all for the sake of collecting propositions that are more likely to be objectively factual. I end up living a life that is utterly false to what it means to be the kind of being I am—and my consolation is a collection of facts.

Consider the following passage from Kierkegaard (in which Kierkegaard is assuming for the sake of argument what he will readily admit is unknowable, namely that the Christian God is the true God—that, in other words, what Christians believe is true):

If one who lives in a Christian culture goes up to God’s house, the house of the true God, with a true conception of God, with knowledge of God and prays—but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous land prays with the total passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest on the image of an idol; where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God, although he worships an idol. The other prays in untruth to the true God and therefore really worships an idol.

Kierkegaard frames the question in terms of objectivity and subjectivity—such that believing the correct doctrines is characterized as the objective side of faith, while believing in the right way, with the right kind of passion and love and attention to one’s relationship with the object of devotion, is the subjective side. I think this characterization may actually be misleading, because in reality both of these aspects of faith are subjective. Believing the right doctrines is a subjective achievement. My beliefs are a subjective matter, and hence believing in the truth is one dimension of having the “right” kind of subjective relationship to the truth. The other dimension is having the right kind of passion, the right kind of attitude, towards the object of belief.

The objective reality—such as the truth about God, about whether God exists at all and what He is like—is a different matter than how closely my beliefs correspond with this truth. And it may well be the case (as Kierkegaard seems to think) that it is impossible to ascertain how closely my beliefs about God correspond to reality. But that, of course, is Kierkegaard’s point: If I devote myself to this question, and to the task of bringing my beliefs about ultimately reality into alignment with ultimate reality as it is in itself, I am devoting myself to a task that, when pursued dispassionately, becomes a distraction from living life (which is passionate). And since this question about ultimate reality is unanswerable, a commitment to answering it before I decide what attitude to adopt towards the universe and how to live my life amounts to the decision to refuse to live a human life at all.

Now I think there’s something to all of this—but I want to make several qualifications. First, sometimes an objective study of something can be an expression of one’s passionate devotion. Because I love my wife, I pay attention to little details about how she moves, about the inflections of her voice. I want to hold these things in my heart accurately, and so there are moments when I attend so closely to her that I lose sight of myself for awhile. Likewise, the best scientists are full of wonder at the physical world—and their devotion to describing it accurately is a manifestation of that passion.

Second, our beliefs affect our attitudes and passions (and, of course, our attitudes and passions affect what we believe). We cannot cleanly separate the two. If I come to believe that my wife has cheated on me or that she disdains me, that would affect our relationship. If I come to believe that God is indifferent to human needs and human suffering—even that God is cruel and hateful—these beliefs will almost certainly impact my attitude towards God. It will be hard to sustain a passionate devotion in the light of these beliefs. More to the point, such devotion would be unfitting.

While it is true that a focus on dispassionately collecting facts about a potential romantic partner is inimical to actually having a romantic relationship, it also true that some people are blinded by their passions and so fail to see ugly truths about the object of their devotion—and their love is thereby rendered pathetic or even dangerous.

And when it comes to loving reality as it is in itself, such love is hardly being expressed when one unswervingly clings to certain beliefs about reality and loves them with all the passion of the infinite while ignoring reasons to doubt their veracity. In that case, the object of love has become one’s own picture of reality. One has become an idolater.

So how are we to pursue the balancing act between believing the right things about ourselves, others, and reality, and living the right way in relation to all of these things? I think Kierkegaard may be best understood as a kind of pragmatist—but not Pascal’s kind. Pascal saw faith as a betting game, in which you bet on the side which offers the highest payoff and the lowest risk. But for Kierkegaard, the proper analogy is not that offered by the betting table, in which you calculate which is your safest bet. Rather, it is that little table in the bistro, sitting across from someone you think you might be falling in love with, aware of the risks and costs of giving your heart in error, but prepared, for the sake of living life, to take the leap.

But if that is the right analogy, then what are the implications for how we construe reality at the most fundamental level, for what kind of meaning we attach to our lives, and for our decisions about the kind of life we forge? Surely it's not blind and unwavering dogmatism, but rather a habit of learning from one's leaps.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Morality, Religion, Bifurcating Ideologies...and Sam Harris's New Book

Earlier this week, in my philosophy of religion class, I offered a brief review of the questions and controversies surrounding the relationship between morality and religion--a topic that I wanted to touch on in class but (as I was making the difficult decisions one has to make when designing a course) decided not to spend extensive time on.

Because theists so often argue that one cannot have morality without God--or at least that one cannot have any kind of objective morality which can provide normative guidance across interpersonal and cultural divides--it makes sense for atheist thinkers, especially those who believe in an objective morality, to attempt to establish a secular foundation for objectively binding moral standards. Thus, it is no surprise that Sam Harris, the "original" new atheist, would turn his attention to this task.

A few months back I offered my reflection on Sam Harris's efforts to pursue this task in a TED talk. Now Harris has released a book on the topic, The Moral Landscape, developing his claim that science can offer an objective foundation for ethics. Just today, Michael Ruse--a philosopher I greatly respect and author of numerous works in the philosophy of science, (including Darwinism and its Discontents and his most recent book, Science and Spirituality)--offers his take (down) of that book in Religion Dispatches.

Many of the points Ruse makes are similar to those I raised in relation to Harris's TED talk--but Ruse is quicker to highlight Harris's deeper agenda, which is (yet again) to trash religion and people of faith. "To say that religion is a bit of an obsession for Harris," Ruse comments, "is rather like saying Hitler had a bit of a thing about the Jews." Ruse is himself an atheist who wrangles repeatedly with creationists and ID theorists, but he's what William Rowe (the atheist philosopher of religion) would dub a "friendly atheist"--that is, his attitude is one of skeptical but respectful critical engagement with people of faith. I think, like me, Ruse is greatly troubled by the kind of bifurcating ideology--the us/them divide and the villifacion on those on the other side of it--that characterizes so much of the contemporary debate about theism and religious faith.

Often, the issue of morality is invoked by religious fundamentalists to villify atheists: There can be no morality without God, they argue; and hence, atheists must be amoral. The reasoning here is terrible, of course. Even if you think that the existence of objective moral truths in some fashion or another depends on the existence of a God, it hardly follows that atheists can't be deeply moral. Suppose there is ongoing uncertainty about the underlying physics that explains the force of gravity--and suppose that in a debate about this underlying physics, one side in the debate has the right answer. It doesn't follow that those on the other side of the debate don't believe in gravity (let alone that they behave as if it doesn't apply to them).

Ruse, in his review of Harris's new book, seems to worry that Harris is taking a page out of the religious fundamentalist's book--trying to argue, in effect, that religious people can't be genuinely moral because they misconceive the foundations of morality. In fact, Ruse seems to be concerned that pursuing this kind of villification of religious believers is a basic driving purpose behind Harris's book.

How else do we explain Harris's utterly gratuitous 15-page attack on Francis Collins, the head of the NIH who also happens to be Christian--an attack that seems entirely out of place in a book that's supposed to be about the foundations of morality? As one reads his review, one can almost see Ruse blinking in astonishment. If your purpose is to explain the foundations of morality in terms of scientific facts, why ignore G.E. Moore's arguments that this cannot be done (in terms of what Moore calls the naturalistic fallacy) while devoting more than a dozen pages to trashing a scientist who has, buy all accounts (except, perhaps, the accounts of those religious conservatives who want to ban stem cell research) led the NIH with distinction?

In fact, as I argued when Harris first called Collins unfit to lead the NIH in the pages of the New York Times (simply because of Collins' Christian faith), there is a very disturbing similarity between Harris's denunciation of Collins and traditional religious denunciation of heretics. Now, it seems, Harris wants to go further: Belief in God not only disqualifies one from being fit to lead an organization such as the NIH; it fundamentally compromises one's ability to lead a moral life.

To be fair, I have yet to read Harris's book and I am going simply off of Ruse's review. Perhaps Harris's argument is not quite so hostile to religion as all of that. But, of course, having read his other books I'm prone to think Ruse's characterization is right. And if it is, then Harris is once again recreating atheism in religious fundamentalism's image--this time by taking the fundamentalist argument that atheists can't be moral and inverting it to apply to religious believers.

I think the issue of how morality and religion intersect is an important one. But I think it is crucial that we explore this and related issues without the sort of hostile us/them thinking that puts those with different ideas into a morally disabled "out-group."  This is not to say there is no truth to the notion that certain ways of thinking can have morally pernicious effects. After all, I just argued in my most recent Religion Dispatches article that allegiance to a doctrine of biblical inerrancy can threaten our capacity for empathy and compassion. But there's a difference between focusing on specific ways of thinking (making a concrete case that their implications are damaging and inviting critical response), and pursuing an agenda of ideological disqualification in which an entire group of diverse human beings is cast beyond the pale--be it Muslims, or Christians, or Jews, or Hindus, or atheists. If any way of thinking has morally pernicious effects, this surely does.

Is Harris guilty of this? I'll decide for sure once I've read his book. But whatever is the case with Harris, let us agree that neither theists nor atheists have a corner on being moral, and neither theists nor atheists have a unique claim on harboring ideas with questionable implications for our prospects of living the most virtuous life we are capable of. In the struggle to understand what it means to live a good life--and the place of religious faith and respect for science in that struggle--bifurcating ideologies only impede progress.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From the Archives: Why I Believe in a Personal God

Since I am grading midterms for the next week, I thought I'd dust off something from the archives, written a couple of years ago, which has clear relation to my previous post. In effect, it is an account of why, on the deepest level, I believe in a personal God--an account rooted in a certain kind of religious experience. As should be clear in the post, I don't claim that this religious experience confers knowledge. But I do think that the pragmatic and ethical implications of trusting the experience, as opposed to dismissing it, are such that they speak in its favor. (At some point I intend to develop in a systematic way what I call "the epistemology of love," that is, a theory of belief-formation that treats the moral call to be as loving as we can be as the foundation not only for how we treat our neighbors and our world, but also for how we form beliefs about our neighbors and our world.) Here, then, from the archives, is "Why I Believe in a Personal God": 

“God,” as I understand that term, names something that is not the least bit anthropomorphic but is deeply and profoundly personal. When I say that something is personal, I mean that it is both a subject and an agent. In other words, a person is a conscious self that acts.

And love cannot happen without such personhood, because love is really about a self that says YES to the other in all its otherness. To say that God’s essence is love is to say, I think, that “God” names that fundamental reality which is constantly and endlessly saying YES to all of us and everything around us. Even if such a reality is unlike anything remotely human, even if it is otherwise shrouded in a cloud of impenetrable mystery, it cannot affirm and value and care unless it is personal.

I believe in a personal God because, when I clear my mind of all my fears and frustrations and preoccupations, I can feel that YES affirming me and resounding in every particle of the universe, coming as if from the very root of it all.

The YES feels like more than just an endorsement or an attitude of approval. It is more fundamentally active than that. It is a performative YES, a YES that sustains. The YES resounds through it all as if it were the source of it all, the limitless being from which all bounded realities flow. It is the YES of the Infinite that cradles the finite, keeping it from descending back into non-existence, from being swallowed up by “the abyss in which it must inevitably sink, the ocean by whose waves it must inevitably be overwhelmed, if He who created it did not also preserve and sustain it” (to quote Karl Barth). It is, in short, a love that preserves.

The encounter with that YES is always transitory. Anxieties and the preoccupations of ordinary life flood back in, drowning it out. The dread of the abyss returns, and all that is left is the memory of a YES that, for the brief moment that it sounded clearly, was more potent than any no could ever be.

The experience of that YES could be delusional. It could be nothing but my deepest hopes projected onto the field of experience. It could just be the power of suggestion, or a side-effect of neural misfirings.

But it feels real. And I can decide to live as if it is real. For there is not a single empirical fact which precludes the reality of something like what I am experiencing—even if, as must be admitted, there are ways of elaborating on the concept of God that do clash with the empirical facts. Such elaborations must be rejected, but not the reality of that which loves from beyond the world.

Believing that my experience of a personal God is veridical doesn’t change what I would expect to observe with my ordinary senses. I wouldn’t expect the empirical world to look different were my experience authentic rather than delusional. But even if believing in the veridicality of that experience makes no difference for what I would expect the empirical world to be like, it makes an enormous practical difference for my life. When I embrace it, when I don’t explain it away but instead accept its substance—when I really come to trust that the fundamental reality in the universe is saying YES to me and everything that is, treasuring and sustaining it all, I find myself saying YES so much more.

And this means that my capacity for joy and gratitude expands, and it means that my capacity for love expands. I live, not in an indifferent universe of blind mechanism and chance, but in a universe that says YES. So long as I can sustain the hope that this is true, I find that I can love more fully and richly, without the usual limitations and conditions. In a universe where that YES is the fundamental truth, to join in the joyous affirmation is to be in tune with the voice of God.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Disputing the Authority of Religious Experience

At the conclusion of his discussion on mystical experiences in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James turns to the question of what kind of authority we should attach to these experiences. Of course, to give them authority is to lend credibility or evidentiary value to what they "say," that is, what lessons they appear to teach us. And that raises the question of what mystical experiences actually do say, if anything.

On this matter, James stresses that "the mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatever of its own. It is capable of matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies." Even so, it is clear that James thinks they do say something--just nothing that justifies invoking them "in favor of any special belief." They are "only relatively in favor" of a range of vaguely supernaturalistic and optimistic understandings of reality.

But do they lend any support to the truth of even this very vague message, a message, in effect, that there is more to reality than what we encounter in ordinary experience, and that this something more is a reason for hope or joy?

On this question, James sums up his position in the following way:

1. Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.

2. No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.

3. The break down the authority of the nonmystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon the understanding of the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other order of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith.
That mystical states are usually authoritative for those who experience them can hardly be challenged. With few exceptions, those who have had these kinds of experiences are transformed by them, both in terms of outlook and behavior. And the basis of that transformation is a sense of having encountered orders of reality that make a difference for how we should live and relate to our world. Mystics see the world in a new light, in terms of a sense of promise that what lies hidden from our ordinary conscious experience infuses all of reality with a value it would not otherwise have, and gives us reason for far more confident joy than the empirical surface of the world can provide.

But while we can all agree that for most mystics, their experiences have this kind of de facto authority, it is arguably more controversial whether they should have it. And it is likewise controversial to insist, as James does, that "the existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretensions of nonmystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe." Here we see the link between James' fascination with mystical experiences and his arguments in his essay, "The Will to Believe," in which he endorses a kind of pragmatic faith, a right of the individual to decide to embrace what goes beyond the ordinary evidence, to pursue practices and make decisions that would make no sense if the material world exhausts what is real, out of the hope of connecting thereby with something of deep value. It is clear that, for James, part of the impetus for favoring such pragmatic faith is that "the pretensions of nonmystical states" have been shattered by the reality of mystical consciousness.

As far as the former issue goes--whether mystics really have a right to believe what their mystical experiences are telling them--James offers a sketch of an argument that has been developed in various ways by other philosophers interested in the epistemology of religious belief (among them William Alston). Here is how I laid out that argument to my philosophy of religion class earlier this week:
1. If a person has an experience (EX) that seems to be an experience of X (some object, event, etc.), then, in the absence of a defeater, it is reasonable to believe PX (the proposition “X exists/ happened/etc.”). (This is one way of formulating what is often called the Principle of Credulity)

2. An experience EX can admit of either of two kinds of defeaters which would block the legitimacy of inferring PX: (i) reason(s) to disbelieve PX more compelling than the reasons, given by EX, for believing PX; (ii) reason(s) for believing that the conditions under which EX occurs render EX a poor indicator of PX’s truth.

3. People have experiences that seem to be of a divine reality, that is, a transcendent and fundamental good (D experiences)

4. Sometimes, the people who have D experiences do not have defeaters of either type (i) or type (ii).

5. At least sometimes, it is reasonable for people who have D experiences to believe that a divine reality exists
Premise 2 may need som clarification. So, imagine I am looking out my window and see, in the courtyard below, what appears to be my wife passionately kissing my least favorite student. This experience would, based on the Principle of Credulity, justify the belief that my wife is kissing my least favorite student in the absence of defeaters. But suppose that my wife happens to be standing next to me in my office at the time of this experience. In that case, I have a defeater of type (i). Or suppose that (against my better judgment) I just ingested a strange mushroom given to me by my least favorite student, that I'm feeling a little funny, and that in addition to seeing my wife in a passionate embrace, I also see in the courtyard Sarah Palin waving at me from astride a huge elephant. In that case, I have a defeater of type (ii).

While some would argue that the problem of evil poses a defeater of type (i) for D experiences, this is hardly an unproblematic claim. The problem of evil clearly is a problem (whether or not it can be overcome) for belief in the "omni-God" who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good. But the belief that flows from a typical D experience is far vaguer than that. At best, the problem of evil might dictate against interpreting the D experience in terms of the existence of a God conceived in this particular way.

In fact, James thinks mystical experiences are generally immune to defeaters of type (i). As he puts it, with respect to the facts given to us in ordinary experience, typical mystical experiences "do not contradict these facts, or deny anything that our senses have immediately seized." Rather, they "merely add a supersensuous meaning to the ordinary outward data of consciousness." And he thinks "there can never be a state of facts to which new meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascend to a more enveloping point of view."

But even if we accept what James has to say on this point, there is still the question of defeaters of type (ii). Michael Scriven has challenged the authority of religious experience in a manner that might be viewed as positing a defeater for religious experiences of type (ii). Here is a key excerpt from his argument:

It is easy for someone to imagine that he saw something he did not see; it is even easier for him to "sense that some presence is nigh," to use a common description of the religious experience, for the sense that gives him this report is not one with the built-in training of our usual senses and is all the easier for the emotions to use as a projection screen.

That the millions who are brought up in a nervous and stress-provoking world and taught the tradition of religious experience and symbolism should produce thousands who claim to have had religious experiences is not surprising but entirely to be expected.
Since I've been in the habit recently of ending my discussion with a theistic argument and asking what skeptical critics think of it, I will end this post with Scriven's skeptical argument, and ask how those prone to lend some wieght to religious experiences might respond to the idea that the existence of religious experiences has no evidentiary value, since the conditions under which they occur are such that we'd expect them to occur whether or not there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Organized Ugliness and Gay Suicide

For those interested, I have a new article in today's Religion Dispatches, "Gay Suicide and the Ethic of Love."

Let me say that this is something I care about on a very deep level, sometimes (I suspect) to the detriment of my health. The other day when I read about yet another suicide by a young gay man, this time here in Oklahoma, I paced my kitchen in a rage, hissing recriminations under my breath against those whose hateful views drive too many sexual minorities to the brink of despair--and then over the edge. After a few minutes of this I felt as if veins in my head were about to burst, and I had no doubt that if someone were to take my blood pressure at that moment they'd want to whisk me off to the emergency room.

And so I did something more productive: I sat down and started to write. Since the most recent suicide had everything to do with the substance of my recent talk, "God and Gays," I connected the dots between this tragic death and the points I made in that talk about what love for our gay and lesbian neighbors requires.

As I wrote, I kept recalling the snippets of hateful comments, delivered in self-righteous tones, that I'd heard through news reports about the Norman City Council meeting where young Zach Harrington was driven to suicide. I visualized them, one after the other, lining up at the microphone to deliver the same message that Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church deliver at Gay Pride Parades and funerals with their garish signs.

Of course, at the city council meeting these messages were sanitized a bit. Phelps, at least, is more honest in his hate. His signs say "God Hates Fags" and "Fags Die, God Laughs." While this is an appalling message, it is somehow less appalling to me than the more sanitized one, which runs something along the following lines: "God despises the perversion of homosexuality, which is a blight on His creation. But He loves homosexuals, and so wants to save them from the fiery pit of eternal anguish He intends to fling them into if they don't change their sexual orientation. And I love them, too, even though they are sick and disgusting."

This kind of message, because it is wrapped in the occasional assurance of love, has greater power than Phelps' hate speech to creep into the psyche of gays and lesbians--like a poisoned pill with a candy coating. But it wouldn't have this power were it not for the broad influence it has, the status it possesses as a legitimate social view (and, in some parts, as the dominant social view). In the absence of that, it would be easy to see through the sugar-coating. But for those gays and lesbians who grow up steeped in a message of rejection, the idea that this rejection is only conditional, that it might be rescinded if only the person would stop being who they are--this message can become internalized. That is, gays and lesbians can hear it and try to meet the condition of acceptance--and when they fail (often after a period of pretense), they blame themselves rather than the purveyors of hate. And so the condemnation of who they are becomes self-imposed, turning into a self-loathing that is a short step from self-annihilation.

At other times, even if the self-hatred does not sink in all the way, the experience of alienation from the community, the sense of being alone in the world and despised by the community, can lead to suicidal despair.

This strident rejection of gays and lesbians (cloaked in self-rightousness and scriptural appeals) is what was on display at the Norman City Council meeting. But there were also representatives of a more progressive view. About half the crowd had come to speak in support of the proclamation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender history month (which, by the way, was approved). But half the crowd had come to shout it down with all the organized vitreol they could muster. So why did Zach Harrington hear the latter and not the former?

As I was writing my article, the answer came from my friend and co-author John Kronen, who called to share with me (for reasons having nothing to do with what I was writing) the following quote from Rabindranath Tagore. I think it speak powerfully to the reality that was on display at that city council meeting, a reality that, somehow, those of good will must find ways to overcome. Here is what Tagore says (from his 1917 book Nationalism):

"But the danger lies in this, that organized ugliness storms the mind and carries the day by its mass, by its aggressive persistence, by its power of mockery directed against the deeper sentiments of the heart….Therefore its rivalry with things that are modest and profound and have the subtle delicacy of life is to be dreaded."

Friday, October 8, 2010

From the Archives: The News from Buffetville

In honor of my lecture earlier this week on "God and Gays," I'm reprising the following tidbit from Easter 2009:

Just yesterday, a loyal (if fictitious) follower of my blog sent me the following fabricated clipping from the Buffetville Scallion-Picayune. I thought it worth sharing with other followers of my blog, and so I reproduce it here.

Kansas Church Protests at Easter Services

By J.J. Loganberry
Senior Staff Reporter

This past Sunday, Easter services at Buffetville Baptist Church were disrupted when the congregation of Kansas-based Eastburro Church, led by Pastor Phred Fleps, came to Buffetville.

Lining the easement surrounding the Buffetville church, Fleps and his congregation of relatives greeted approaching families with jeers, derisive laughter, and signs declaring “New car owners die, God laughs!” and “New car owners burn in hell!” As services began, the Eastburro group began chanting, “God hates new car owners!”

Lilly Thesbit, a retired school teacher who has been attending Buffetville Baptist Church all her life, was distressed by the group and its message. “I don’t understand it,” she told reporters. “They’re ruining my Easter. Nobody even noticed my new hat.”

Others were equally dismayed. “I don’t know why they have to come here on Easter Sunday of all days,” said 17-year-old Joey Dick. “I mean, if they’ve got a problem with our pastor’s new Acura, why not protest it on the third Sunday in Pentecost or something? Why Easter?”

The offending vehicle, which Pastor Bill McCune of Buffetville Baptist Church purchased less than a month ago, was parked throughout the protest in the designated pastor’s space behind the church. Police were on the scene to make sure that none of the protesters vandalized the car.

“It’s bad theology,” declared Pastor Bill. “They read a few scattered passages in the Bible that say we should care for the poor, and they interpret it to mean I can’t enjoy a new luxury car with my hard-earned money. I mean yes, technically I could make do with a used car, and technically the money I saved could be sent to Oxfam and would help save the lives of a few thousand malnourished children. But come on. I really liked the leather seats!”

Fleps has a different view. “Jesus tells us that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And you remember what he told the young rich man who asked about what he needed to do to earn eternal life? Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give it all to the poor.”

“It’s not just about the pastor’s new car,” Fleps continues. “That’s a symbol of a bigger problem. Just look at all these people flouncing into church in their brand new outfits. Look at all those fancy cars in the parking lot! These people who claim to be Christians are spending money on luxuries while children are starving! It’s an abomination! The least he could've done is gotten himself a hybrid car.”

But Steve Lisp, one of the deacons at Buffetville Baptist, thinks that for Pastor Bill to keep driving that six-year-old Cadillac “would give the wrong message.”

“We’re not one of those poor churches that can’t afford to pay our pastor a nice salary,” insists Lisp. “Half our congregation belongs to the country club!”

“I don’t understand why they can’t be like those Wetsboro folks, and protest real problems like gay marriage,” says Pastor Bill. “I mean, the homosexuals are destroying this country, right? The Bible’s full of stuff that condemns those homos. Me, I’m just living the American dream. God wants his obedient followers to have nice things.”

“For a pastor,” says Fleps, “Bill doesn’t know his Bible very well, does he? Jesus never mentions homosexuality. And aside from a couple of verses in Leviticus, a book that no Christian today treats as authoritative, the only unambiguous mention of same-sex acts is a passing comment in Romans. But the Bible is obsessed with caring for the poor. Let’s face it, if you’re going to be biblical about things, the controversy shouldn’t be about gay pastors, but about pastors who enjoy luxuries while there are people in the world who go to bed hungry. That’s why we’re here.”

But little Jenny Fisher, who attends Buffetville Middle School, knows the truth of the matter. “They just want attention. I mean look at them. They’re dressed like the nerd contingent at my school. They weren’t popular in school, and now they’ve found a way to get people to pay attention to them.”

As this reporter’s mother used to say, “From the mouths of babes…”

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Norman Malcolm's Ontological Argument

Apologies for not getting this up sooner. I've been unusually busy since getting back from my conference in Detroit, trying to balance my time between work on the new book and preparing a talk I'm giving this afternoon entitled "God and Gays: Rethinking the Traditional Condemnation of Homosexuality."

In any event, here is the promised outline of the ontological argument that Norman Malcolm develops in his essay "Anselm's Ontological Arguments."

What Malcolm discovered as he reread Anselm's Proslogion was this: what everyone seemed to take to be just a rewording of the argument Anselm is most famous for is actually a different argument. The first argument holds that existence is, in effect, a great-making property, and that therefore the greatest conceivable being must exist. Malcolm agrees that this argument is unsound, accepting Kant's contention that "existence is not a real predicate." But the second Anselmian argument, rather than focusing on existence, focuses on existing necessarily rather than contingently. Anselm argues, in effect, that it is greater to exist of necessity than to exist contingently. Hence, it is part of the very concept of a greatest conceivable being that this being exist necessarily.

What Malcolm notes is that the property of existing necessarily rather than contingently does meet the test of being a "real" predicate in Kant's sense. That is, it adds to our concept of the thing, describing what it is like rather than merely stating that the thing as described has an instance in the world.

For this very reason, of course, it remains an open question whether there actually exists an entity which possesses its existence in this unique way--necessarily rather than contingently. So we haven't defined God into existence by noting that the very idea of God presupposes necessary existence. We can still reasonably ask, "Does there actually exist a greatest-conceivable being?" If  the answer is yes, then that being does not exist merely contingently but necessarily. But Malcolm goes further than this. He argues (and here he is following in the footsteps not only of Anselm but of Leibniz) that the only reason why a greatest-conceivable being wouldn't exist would be because the concept named something whose existence was impossible.

In other words, a crucial feature of Malcolm's development of Anselm's argument is his insight that, as conceived, either "God" names an impossible being or a necessary being that actually exists. Put another way, if God is possible, God is actual.

This is a very interesting result in its own right, but Malcolm goes on to argue (in a manner reminiscent of at least some of Gödel's efforts to construct an ontological argument) that God's existence must be deemed possible.

Another feature of Malcolm's argument is that he sets aside Anselm's language of greatness (perhaps worried about this term being understood in subjectivist ways). Instead of defining God as the "greatest" conceivable being, he defines God as "an absolutely unlimited being." Now certain kinds of properties, he thinks, imply limitation (for example, having a shape--since a shape is defined by its outer boundaries). On this definition, then, God would not have a shape. More generally, physical existence in time and space seems to require boundaries or limits, and so God wouldn't have such spatio-temporal properties. God would be "eternal" and "transcendent." But the possession of power (capacity to do something) does not similarly imply limitation. Nor does the possession of knowledge. If this is right, then these are things an unlimited being would possess without limit.

What Malcolm argues, following Anselm, is that necessary rather than contingent existence is also something that would have to characterize an unlimited being. Here is an outline of his argument for that conclusion:

1. “God” means an absolutely unlimited being

2. Any being whose existence depended on something else, or which could be prevented from existing by something else, would be limited by something else and so would not be an unlimited being.

3. For every proposed being, B, its existence is either possible (but not necessary), necessary, or impossible

4. To say of B that its existence is possible but not necessary is to say that it exists in some possible world (call it PW1), but not in another (PW2)

5. If B existed in PW1 but not in PW2, then either (a) there is something that exists in PW2 that prevents B from existing, or (b) there is something missing from PW2 that B requires in order to exist.

6. Hence, if B’s existence is possible but not necessary, then (a) or (b) is true.

7. If (a) or (b) is true, then B is not an unlimited being.

8. Hence, if B is possible but not necessary, then B is not an unlimited being

9. Hence, if God is possible but not necessary, then God is not an unlimited being

10. Hence, it is not the case that God is possible but not necessary

11. Hence, God is either impossible or exists necessarily

At this point Malcolm takes up the question of whether God, conceived as an unlimited being, is possible. To make his argument here, he invokes two ideas: first, that an entity's existence is impossible only if it is characterized by contradictory properties (e.g., a round square); second, that such contradictions arise only when one property-attribution negates what is affirmed by another property attribution. But to negate what is posited elsewhere, a property attribution must embody, at least implicitly a limitation. Roundness negates squareness because it imposes boundaries or limits on the space occupied by the object precisely where squareness does not, and vice versa. These concepts, in other words, are partly "negative" concepts--they don't merely ascribe some property to an object, but deny something of it. But an absolutely unlimited being would be such that no real "positive" attribute could be denied of it (we could only deny "negative" properties of it--that is, properties which ascribe absence or limit). As such, Malcolm concludes that an unlimited being cannot embody a contradiction, since that would require the possession of both a positive property and a negative property that denies the former. But an unlimited being would only possess positive properties. This part of his argument can be outlined as follows:

12. In order for the existence of some proposed being B to be impossible, the concept of B must imply, with respect to at least one positive property P, each of the contradictory claims “B has property P” and “B lacks property P.”

13. To lack a positive property is to be limited.

14. If 13, then the conception of an unlimited being cannot include or imply anything of the form “B lacks property P.”

15. Hence, God is not impossible.

16. Hence, God exists necessarily.

Critics of this argument are often skeptical of the idea that the positive and negative property distinction is a meaningful one. If it's not, then we might be forced to say that the failure to possess certain properties is a limitation, whereas their possession would contradict the possession of the opposing property (which one could not deny possession of without imposing limitation). But while it might be difficult to offer definitions of "positive property" and "negative property," there does seem to be an intuitive distinction here. Some property attributions assert that an object lacks something ("ignorant" or "impotent" or "empty"), while others that it has something ("knowledgable" or "capable" or "full"). Others are mixed, in that they assert than an object has this but lacks that ("round" or "green"). Nevertheless, especially when we get to the idea of mixed properties we wade into thorny territory. To use what is perhaps a silly example: Is heat the presence of something and cold the lack of it, such that we must say of God that God is infinitely hot? Or does being the sort of thing that's subject to heat and cold imply a limitation, such that anything of any heat is limited, and an unlimited being would therefore have to be something to which the categories of hot and cold simply do not apply?

Other questions arise, of course, when we consider moral properties. Can there be such a thing as unlimited goodness? And if so, what does that look like? To adhere with traditional theology, we'd need to hold that evil is a lack (something Augustine affirmed), such that any presence of evil implies limitation. If we think of evil as something positive, we get a God who must embody unlimited evil (as well as unlimited good--and hence must embody a contradiction). As such, Malcolm's argument leads us directly into a consideration of the nature of good and evil.